|NUMBER||BIG IDEAS||LEARNING OUTCOMES|
|1.||There is a real world out there, and science is the human endeavor that observes and investigates ‘how things are’ with that reality.||Integrate what humanity has learned recently, by way of science, into a new way of seeing the world, shifting our worldview, to lead us off our ecocidal track that threatens human security.|
|2.||Living organisms have been discovered to be immensely complex autopoietic systems. Ecosystems, the biosphere, and the biogeophysical Earth system as a whole, are successively larger complex systems; understanding their function requires taking into account the nonlinear interactions of many factors.||Think holistically using system thinking, not just linear thinking, in order to understand living organisms and those levels of organization.|
|3.||All living organisms have much in common, from their bodily composition and vital biochemical processes to their purposive activity, which is always aimed at maintaining and elaborating the lives that their individual genetic endowments make possible.||Accept that all living organisms have interests, and respect those.|
|4.||Life has been flowing into increasingly elaborate forms on the Earth over the last four billion years. In each period of time, life flows over space through patterns of dynamic interaction among innumerable living organisms, joined together by matter and energy exchange within ecosystems.||Learn to look at the Earth in evolutionary terms, including the history of life. Understand how human societies evolved into their present state, looking at certain aspects of that development through several different disciplinary lenses.|
|5.||Ecosystems are structured by the ways in which solar energy flows through the system, energy initially trapped by the photosynthetic activities of the ‘producers’ of living matter, and powering successive trophic layers of ‘consuming’ organisms, whose biomass diminishes moving upward toward the apex of the biotic pyramid.||Understand how energy flows through the trophic levels of an ecosystem.|
|6.||Humans are primates, not carnivores, and did not evolve as apex predators; our closest evolutionary relatives, with whom we share a basic physiology, are primarily vegetarian.||Place yourself, and your species, into the correct trophic level of an ecosystem that supports your existence.|
|7.||Since all living organisms must sense ‘how things are’ in their environment and respond appropriately to it if they are to stay alive, all living organisms have some sort of awareness. Many types of nonhuman animals have well-developed brains and manifest intelligent behavior; many have special senses and abilities that we humans don’t have.||Develop an awareness that all life forms have minds, and that some are comparable to human minds in complexity.|
|8.||Human beings are a part of nature, and therefore share in what all lifeforms have in common.||Accept that there is no empirically identifiable characteristic that makes humans metaphysically unique and superior to nonhuman beings. Accept that a ‘war on nature’ is a war against ourselves as well as the larger community of life on Earth, and therefore a threat to real human security.|
|9.||Early humans must have been highly social primates that developed group identities through shared symbols and ways of communicating meaning through sound and gesture.||Describe the evolutionary advantages of such skills.|
|10.||Language allowed us to divide up the nature around us into separate parts and name them, creating ‘re-presentations’ of things. The ability to cut from context and name things in a particular way enabled us to ‘grasp’ parts of nature and use them in a coordinated way, giving us a great deal of power over the world around us. The kind of thinking that divides and separates also promoted group cohesion and conceptualizing ‘other’ groups as ‘enemies,’ threats to the security of our ‘own’ groups.||Describe some examples of those developments that describe how human societies evolved.|
|11.||Many vertebrates show a functional difference between the right and left hemispheres of their brains, the left focusing on parts and pieces of things to categorize them in terms of their usefulness, the right taking in the whole scene with an eye toward relationships with other beings, for good or for ill. In the majority of humans, our primary language centers are located in our left hemispheres.||Describe examples of how your left and right hemisphere interpret the world in different ways.|
|12.||The culture of Western Europe, more so than other human cultures, has emphasized the abstract world of our representations and valued them over and above the real world of nature, and has exalted the superiority of human beings because of their ability to speak and think ‘rationally’. The mechanistic physics successfully applied by Newton to the solar system was projected onto the universe, envisioning it as a great machine, and all living beings (with the exception of the human being) as merely clockwork mechanisms. This image of an inanimate, ‘dead’ nature persists today as an implicit metaphor which still serves to justify treating the rest of the living world as nothing but a store of ‘resources’ and provider of ‘services’ for human beings.||Interpret those developments in terms what might have been gained by ‘Western’ cultures and what might have been lost – or benefits vs. harms, if you prefer. In the same way, evaluate Iain McGilchrist’s interpretation of the history of the development of Western thought as evidence for the emergence of an increasingly left-hemisphere dominated, use-oriented approach to the world, an approach that is now manifesting in many parts of the globe with the spread of industrial society.|
|13.||John Searle maintains that we humans construct our ‘social reality’ by using shared symbols that allow us to organize and coordinate our collective behavior; he claims that our very complex social institutions are created through many iterations of the bestowal of this sort of functional symbolic status. Most people are not aware that our social institutions are human creations, and tend to take them for part of the ‘ontologically objective’ reality of the physical and biological world, when they are actually ‘ontologically subjective,’ being ultimately dependent on the beliefs of minded beings for their existence. Our economic and political institutions are ontologically subjective. As social constructions, they are open to conscious revision as warranted.||Name examples of ontologically objective and subjective objects in your everyday life. Suggest how you would prefer the latter to be revised and describe for what benefits.|
|14.||Searle’s theory holds that all human social institutions come into being through ‘a single logico-linguistic operation,’ and as such it is likely that McGilchrist would consider them products of left-hemisphere cognition. Most of us just grow up within a society and absorb a certain set of ‘background’ capacities that enable us to live within the institutional structure without thinking consciously about it. Zerubavel discusses our ‘shared mindscapes’ and our tendency toward conformity that may sometimes lead us to ‘go along with the crowd’ against the testimony of our own senses.||Follow Norgaard’s application of Zerubavel’s ‘cognitive sociology’ in her analysis of collective denial, ‘conspiracy of silence,’ and selective attention among those who benefit in various ways from the war against nature. Describe examples from your own social life where collective behaviour proceeds unexamined, in spite of individuals’ contradictory sensory information.|
|15.||As we begin to get the picture, not only of the intricate workings of the Biosphere and the Earth System, but of our escalating human impact on these systems and its disastrous consequences for all life on Earth, we will realize the necessity for bringing ‘our war against nature’ to a close. Applying the insights of these several thinkers, some of the ways we can begin to ‘reverse course’ become clear.||Describe how you interpret the following suggestions for your own life decisions: (a) overcoming our denial of what’s happening and our own role in it, (b) correcting the myths and metaphors in our culture that promote a mistaken view of how things are, (c) righting the ‘ontological reversal’ in thinking that the economy is what supports our lives, independently of the ecology, (d) reducing the dominance of left hemisphere cognition in our culture and in ourselves, (e) promoting a right-hemisphere approach of openness to others of both human and nonhuman form.|
|16.||Anthropocentrism signifies the belief in the centrality of the human, both insofar as human consciousness is taken as the exemplar of all consciousness, and with respect to the overtly normative judgment that humans are superior to all other life and thereby justified in taking nonhuman lives and habitats for their own use. The belief in human centrality and superiority is unwarranted on the basis of what we now know about life on Earth. At the end of this chapter and Chapter 12, the questions will be posed: Who are we? What kind of being is the human being going to choose to be? Will we continue to exalt our own species above all others, and “war” against them, or will we be the kind of being that accepts our place within nature, and calls off this misbegotten “war”?||Describe your own personal environmental ethic in terms of anthropocentrism or alternatives to it. Engage with those questions on the basis of your personal beliefs and hopes.|
With respect to human security, the scene at this point in time has us teetering on the brink of further escalating ‘our war against nature,’ as mega-projects are being planned and carried out all around the globe, while the product of our numbers times our per-person consumption reaches never-before-seen proportions. This ‘war,’ like many biological processes in nature, took quite a while to build up steam, but ever since the ‘Great Acceleration’ of the mid-20th century — which will be discussed in the next chapter (Chapter 12) — we have been engaged in an all-out assault on nonhuman beings and natural systems. This chapter presents a brief outline of what nature is like, to the best of our current scientific knowledge, tracing the flow of life on Earth over time and space and the emergence of minds within it; after all, if we’re going to continue engaging in a ‘war,’ we should at least know something about ‘the enemy.’ One thing that integrating current scientific knowledge into our worldview should give us is a vision of organisms and ecosystems as immensely complex, self-maintaining systems quite unlike anything the outdated myths, images and metaphors we have inherited from past ways of thinking have made them out to be. The simultaneous realization that we humans are equally biological organisms in continuity with and dependent on the larger biosphere and that we are currently destabilizing planetary systems in a major way (the latter point to be illustrated by examples in Chapter 12) should shock us into a species-wide bump-up in our collective awareness that might be sufficient to bring about a serious effort to ‘scale down and pull back.’ The several avenues for turning the tide explored here — revising misleading myths and metaphors, recognizing the differential ontological status of what actually supports our lives versus what currently channels our collective activities, dialing down the left-hemisphere dominance that has driven the transformation of living nature into that quantifiable abstraction we call ‘money’ by imposing upon it the image of a lifeless heap of resources to be ‘used,’ and — the necessary first step — getting over the collective denial that locks us into a ‘conspiracy of silence’ about this unacknowledged war — all might contribute to creating the kind of human being who finally makes peace with nature.
It is becoming clear that the relationship between our species and nature will be of critical importance to human security in the coming years, as we move ever further into this new geological epoch we have named after ourselves, the so named because there is evidence that our human activities, in the aggregate, have become so enormous that they are altering nature, changing the parameters of the biogeophysical systems of the Earth in measurable ways that bode no good for the continuation of human society. In order to understand how this relationship became so fraught with difficulties — which will be necessary if we are ever to repair it — it will be helpful to look into the problematic approach that has been taken up to now, which can be termed ‘Our War Against Nature.’
The Anthropocene is a monumental security problem, yet we lack the conceptual resources to effectively deal with it. We cannot see it. We cannot think it. Even if we could, the conditions of the new human age are of such a magnitude that our interventions will never be able to fully meet its challenges. (Harrington & Shearing, 2017, p. 141)
In order to understand what is meant by ‘Our War Against Nature,’ we must start by defining terms. What do we mean by ‘war’ and ‘nature’? War usually implies violence of some sort, inflicted with the intent to kill living beings, and it is usually the effort of one human grouping to subdue and possibly exterminate another human grouping; here it will need to be broadened to apply to the extermination of nonhuman beings as well, and the understanding of ‘intent’ will have to run the gamut from full conscious intent to an ‘unconscious’ going along with the crowd in a kind of psychological denial over the ultimate consequences of seemingly innocent actions. The word ‘nature’ will be used here to refer to the Biosphere, the sum total of living beings on the Earth, including ourselves as biological beings, organized as we all are into the interactive ecosystems that support our lives. Another important question that should arise upon reading the chapter title, however, is this: who are ‘we’ to be waging such a war, who are we that would claim violent acts against nature, so defined, as our own? Figuring out the identity of that ‘who,’ and realizing the difference between ‘its’ security and the security of real, live human beings who know they are not separate from, and who do not wish to act warlike toward, the nature on this planet, will mark a major step toward attaining real human security.
Along the way to this goal, however, we must not only figure out who ‘we’ are, we must try to get a handle on reality in general, and in particular what ‘nature,’ understood as the larger biological world that includes us, is like and how we come to know what it is like. There are things that really exist, outside of ourselves — I think all of us must acknowledge this, as a fact of our own existence. There is, ‘really,’ a real world out there, one that we can see and hear and touch and smell. We know that something exists that is independent of our own private thoughts about it, and we humans share the knowledge of the existence of a common reality ‘out there’ in such a way that we can talk to one another about it, arrange to meet one another at certain times and places within it, and so on. All other living organisms share with us the ability to have knowledge of the existence of the fundamental reality, to the extent that all of us beings need to understand ‘how things are’ with that reality, in order to be able to deal with it so as to stay alive. All organisms have ways of sensing those aspects of reality that are important to them; we humans have our own types of sense organs that allow us to sense what is important to us. We also have brains that enable us to synthesize this information and take appropriate action, as do many other animals.
Long ago in our history, however, some of us humans started to look more closely at the world around us, to observe how parts of it seemed to behave by watching and listening and touching that reality, sometimes even poking around with it, and even measuring and recording things, and trying to explain how things happened and predict what was likely to happen next. Thus we started practicing ‘science,’ in many forms in many different cultures around the world — the wellsprings of science being the curiosity that propels one to seek out how things are, really, in the world, combined with the spirit of empiricism, the inner demand to come as close as possible to this knowledge through direct interaction with one’s own senses, with as little as possible need for taking anyone else’s word about how they are.
Because we humans are very social beings, however, we began sharing the things we were learning about the nature of our reality, building on what had been recorded by those that came before, and sometimes the common opinion about what’s true of our underlying reality needed to be corrected when new information, empirically gathered, came to light. Shared beliefs are ‘sticky’ things — they can enlarge our understanding of the world, but they can also hold back our ability to incorporate new knowledge because of the powerful resonance created by everybody-believing-the-same-thing-together. The trade-off between these two consequences of our social nature has led to several recognized ‘revolutions’ in the history of science, times when the general outline of what is taken for reality — our beliefs about ‘how things are’ — has needed to shift significantly, first among scientists and eventually among the general public, changing from one pattern of understanding to another. In the Western world, for example, the Copernican Revolution changed the collective understanding of ‘how things are’ from belief in a geocentric universe to belief in a solar system in which the Earth is the third planet from the sun, and once the ‘new’ way of looking at the heavens was adopted — once this paradigm shift was made, in the words of Thomas Kuhn (1962) — many things that just didn’t fit into the older way of thinking were seen for the first time, including new stars, sunspots and comets. We now seem to be on the verge of another major shift of as a result of continuing progress in science, and whether or not it is successfully achieved may well determine whether or not our human species, as well as the many others that evolved with us, will continue to exist into the future. The inertia of our old, shared, but simply habitual ways of thinking and acting has become a major obstacle to our making the necessary shift in our thinking and acting. Fortunately, the way social forces maintain and reinforce that inertia is also something that certain branches of academic endeavor now are grappling with; unfortunately, however, several recently worsening developments are working to undermine our ability to learn from science what we need to know about our reality, ranging from the tendency of certain scientists to allow their research to be influenced by the needs of the industries they serve — thus contributing to a growing skepticism about the integrity of ‘science’ in certain other quarters — all the way to financial and political interests overtly generating and propagating deliberate misinformation to keep us in ignorance or fostering collective denial (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
In this chapter, we will speak a great deal in the language of science, mostly biological science, because the intention here is to provide an overview of how things are with nature — how it works, what we’re doing to it, and why; and science, if done with integrity, seems to provide the best way we have of figuring all that out. Empirical science is built on the assumption that what I laid out at the start of this chapter is true: that there is a reality that we can see and touch and measure; and it is hoped that we can use what is concluded on the basis of careful observations of it to change prevailing beliefs if and when change is discovered to be warranted. We will also speak in the language of philosophy upon occasion. However, and will do so now in order to introduce the term , the philosophical study of being, of what exists and in what way; here we will follow John Searle (1995) in distinguishing two fundamentally different ontological categories, that which exists ‘objectively’ in the physical/biological world, independently of the ways we may represent things to ourselves within our belief systems — i.e. the things that are studied by science — and that which exists subjectivel’ in the form of the shared representations that we humans carry around in our heads, which underlie our ‘social reality,’ to be discussed later in the chapter. The revolution in our way of understanding ‘how things are’ — the shift that needs to happen — begins with opening our eyes to the complexity of nature, to the astounding complexity of living organisms and the ecosystems in which they are enmeshed, which our science is only just recently coming to appreciate; it will come full circle when we begin to see ourselves acting within this larger context, including the ways in which we are acting to construct our social reality, and how we might begin to change this humanly created reality so as not to have such a destructive effect on nature, including that part of nature that is ourselves.
In order to deal with the welter of detail that is emerging rapidly, however, given the sheer number of human beings now engaging in science and contributing to our understanding of all that that complexity, we need to learn how to approach it in terms of ‘systems thinking’ — a very different way of thinking about how things happen than the simplistic linear model that goes ‘A bumps into B and causes C.’ A system has been defined as ‘a set of things interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,’ and as such it needs to be considered holistically, not thought of as merely an assemblage of separate ‘parts,’ with the recognition that the basic operating unit of a system is the feedback loop (Meadows, 2008). Since our reality is unimaginably complex, its vast number of parts are interconnected through innumerable ongoing interactions, and these are damped down or speeded up by a multitude of feedbacks such that the relationship between any given change in the system and its ensuing effects will usually be anything but linear. This broad sea-change in our thinking will also serve to usher in two more specific changes in our way of seeing the world. The first comes when we step back from our shallow stereotypes and see other beings as the immensely complex living wholes that they are, and the other occurs when we take another step back and start getting a grasp of the larger whole made up of all these innumerable other living beings in ongoing relationships with one another — the Biosphere, the dynamic configuration of all life on this planet. We will begin to see many other living beings as highly intelligent and purposive in their own right, that they are not just ‘things’ or ‘resources’ to do with as we please, and will recognize that we are not only interconnected with them in many biological ways, we are also enmeshed in moral relationships with them. At the same time that we are beginning to cognize the Biosphere’s complexity and that of the myriad living beings we share it with, however, we are also becoming aware of the extent to which our collective human activities have already impacted many of these other beings and the Earth System as a whole, and of how these systems are likely to fare in the future if we continue on along our present course. It is to be hoped that, as we all absorb the many new findings emerging from science, we will decide to reverse course and call off our ‘war against nature.’
Living organisms exhibit the highest degree of complexity that we know of, far higher than any systems we humans have designed, and it must be admitted that, as extensive as our scientific knowledge is to date, we are still far from understanding the nature of the phenomenon of life itself. As Meadows explains systems thinking, all systems have a purpose, and all of their ‘parts’ function together in order to fulfill that purpose. We humans construct nonliving systems that function to fulfill purposes of our choosing, from simple thermostat-controlled heat sources to computers. Natural living systems — organisms, and at another level of analysis, ecosystems — function to fulfill the purposes of staying alive, expressing their genomes, and evolving. They have been termed systems in light of their properties of and self-maintenance. When an organism dies, its parts disintegrate into their nonliving components, but while it is alive it maintains its extremely complex, highly organized structure through constantly active biochemical processes, processes that are largely shared throughout the living world.
All life as we know it is based on a set of chemical compounds containing the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur, a small, select subset of all the chemical compounds found in nonliving nature. These chemical compounds are joined together into proteins, lipids, complex carbohydrates, and nucleic acids, the building blocks of living matter, but the metaphor is misleading if it leads one to envision static structures; the biochemical constitution of living organisms is in constant motion, the vital processes of photosynthesis (in green plants) and respiration (in all living organisms) are ongoing — the engines of life — and continually feeding into more specialized pathways involved in life maintenance and continuation for specific types of organisms. Many of these metabolic processes are said to have been highly conserved, meaning that there has been very little change in them over evolutionary time — they are processes that we all have in common, all of us beings, as living parts of nature, the larger whole.
Even as the core biochemical processes of life have remained much the same, the bodily forms taken by living organisms have evolved over time. The discovery that a process of evolution has taken place on this planet, however, has often been said to have ‘taken teleology,’ or purposiveness, ‘out of nature,’ but that claim, in itself, is misleading. What can be said is that we have no evidence of natural processes seeking some externally imposed ‘final goal’ such as we might postulate a detached ‘designer’ dictating. But our planet, Earth, ‘is riddled with purpose,’ as the late Mary Midgley observed; it’s “full of organisms, beings that all steadily pursue their own characteristic ways of life, beings that can be understood only by grasping the distinctive thing that each of them is trying to be and do” (Anthony, 2014). Evolution, ‘descent with modification by natural selection,’ is conceived in terms of heritable changes occurring within a population of organisms over time as a result of factors within their environment selecting, for survival, those individuals exhibiting particular traits — bodily manifestations of genetic variability — that make them best suited to live in that particular place. But individual organisms are certainly ‘purposive’ in striving to do just that, to survive and, if so fortunate, to reproduce, and along the way to live their lives to the fullest according to what their own nature’s genetic toolkit enables them to do — as we humans, no more and no less products of evolution, also do.
We are finally coming out, thankfully, of an era dominated by reductionism, so it is no longer necessary to ‘flatten’ all living beings (excepting ourselves — and we do typically make exceptions of ourselves, inconsistently with an appreciation of evolution) into agency-less, subjectivity-less bits of matter being bumped about, at the mercy of the determinism of their DNA combined with the brutal mechanism of competition and conflict for ‘resources.’ This view of living organisms is wrong; it is the purposiveness of life, each individual organism pushing itself forward into the available affordances of its habitat, that provides the motive force behind the process of the evolution of life over time, a purposiveness that all of us living beings share. The fact that there is something known as ‘convergent evolution’ — that certain abilities, such as the ability to see, the ability to fly, the tendency to socialize with conspecifics, even the capacity for engaging in ‘higher cognition,’have evolved in multiple, distantly related lines — may indicate that there are a certain limited number of ways of ‘living out ones genetic toolkit to the fullest’ on this planet, as a result of this ‘push’ from inside toward self-elaboration; it need not be taken as evidence for a predetermined pattern imposed from without, but the evolution of some of these abilities could legitimately give rise to speculations about mutual recognition among living organisms as a kind of strange attractor.
While we still, to reiterate, do not fully understand the nature of the phenomenon, nor its origins, we are bringing into focus an increasingly detailed picture of the development of life once it appeared, which some scientists are now claiming may date back as far as four billion years, almost to the origin of the Earth itself. Innumerable species have come into being and passed out of it again over this multibillion year span; the phenomenon of life has surged forward to elaborate a Biosphere of great complexity many times, suffering setbacks, and a few great die-offs, but so far always recovering, even if ecosystems have taken millions of years between cataclysms to attain the degree of diversity we enjoy today, or at least did until recently. A species, according to Holmes Rolston, “is a living historical form, propagated in individual organisms, that flows dynamically over generations” (1985, p. 721). Stepping back to view it from afar, we can thus see life flowing over time, its myriad specific forms adapting to changing circumstances, and simultaneously flowing over space, as forms differentiate and interact within environments. In its most recently generated wave of forms, moreover, life can be seen elaborating itself in multitudes of individual organisms with increasingly sensitive ways of becoming aware of what’s around them, and of responding to what’s out there, with many possible currents of interaction setting up between the different living forms as ‘mind’ has blossomed and subjectivity within them deepened.
The membrane-bound cell is the basic unit of all life as we know it, and a single cell is in itself an immensely complex system, the functioning of which we are just beginning to understand. All living organisms, single-celled or many celled, are given their bodily structure by proteins, assembled out of a set of twenty left-handed amino acids in a complex process under the direction of a DNA-based genetic code. On the basis of genomic similarities, (a Last Universal Common Ancestor), has been proposed, believed to have come into existence almost four billion years ago and to have given rise to all species that have emerged since, so that all presently existing species can be seen as deriving from one fundamentally interrelated Tree of Life (Hug et al., 2016). The first lifeforms on this Earth, our science tells us, were prokaryotes — bacteria and the more recently recognized archaea — single-celled organisms that lacked organelles and even a membrane-bound nucleus but that went about busily metabolizing anyway, picking up sensory cues, moving around in their environments, interacting in mutualistic, competitive and predatory relationships by themselves for a couple of billion years, give or take a few hundred million, until other forms appeared, other forms that are still going strong today. Prokaryotic cyanobacteria carried out photosynthesis, combining carbon dioxide and water to make sugars and ultimately many other organic compounds, thereby creating food for themselves and others out of the energy of the sun, and giving off oxygen, which gradually built up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Then somewhere around two billion years ago, the prokaryotes were joined by the eukaryotes, organisms whose DNA is packaged inside a nucleus and who come equipped with mitochondria to carry out oxidative phosphorylation, to keep energy flowing in their bodies, and, if plants, chloroplasts to house the processes of photosynthesis — these two essential organelles now recognized as quite possibly having arisen from prokaryotic forms becoming symbiotic with and later incorporated into larger cells, as first hypothesized by Lynn Margulis. “Whatever the exact series of events turns out to be,” explains Carl Zimmer (2009), “eukaryotes triggered a biological revolution,” since, while “prokaryotes can generate energy only by pumping charged atoms across their membranes,” eukaryotes “can pack hundreds of energy-generating mitochondria into a single cell,” and therefore could get much bigger, and develop multicellularity.
A little over 600 million years ago, multicellular forms known as Ediacarans appeared on the scene, with bodily forms unlike any organism alive today, some growing in strange, fractal patterns, some displaying three-part symmetry. These were replaced when the first ancestors of all the modern forms of animals — molluscs, echinoderms, arthropods, a group that includes insects and crustaceans, the chordate ancestors of the vertebrates, and so on — made their appearance in what has been called the Cambrian explosion, beginning around 540 million years ago. While its triggering factors are still scientifically controversial, this event has been summed up as follows: “after millions of years of quiet progress, animals had finally accrued the developmental recipes to build body parts and improve on basic themes,” an achievement requiring a genetic toolkit that was, in the words of paleontologist Nick Butterfield, “absolutely, astronomically, inconceivably complex” (Sokol, 2018, p. 884). The Cambrian marked the beginning of the Paleozoic era, which continued until roughly 250 million years ago, during which time vascular plants colonized land and vertebrates appeared — first the fishes, followed by amphibians, and then, with the evolution of the amniotic egg that permitted embryos to develop in a dry environment, the reptiles. The animal kingdom is generally thought of as divided between the vertebrates, animals with backbones, and the invertebrates, animals lacking backbones, but bodily development in both groups has been found to proceed along similar lines under the control of a small number of homeobox or Hox genes that serve to switch gene expression on and off in the growing embryos. The great majority of animal species, vertebrate and invertebrate, are classified as bilaterians, bilaterally structured with a right and left side that are mirror images of each other. The five classes of vertebrate animals — the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals — all share the bilateral tetrapod body plan, with four appendages, be they fins, wings or limbs.
The Paleozoic era ended with the most severe extinction event in Earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic (P-T) extinction event or the ‘great dying,’ occurring around 250 million years ago, during which reportedly about 70% of terrestrial vertebrates and up to 96% of species of marine life became extinct. One likely contributory cause of this event is climate warming. Reconstructed seawater temperatures from the Triassic (the geologic period immediately following the end-Permian extinction), show an inverse relationship with biological diversity, and marine animals have been particularly vulnerable to warming because their need for oxygen increases with rising temperature while its concentration in seawater decreases, with water temperatures over 35°C being generally lethal (Sun et al., 2012).
Ecosystems collapsed worldwide following the event, and while ‘disaster taxa’ — weedy generalist species that can colonize many sorts of disturbed habitats rapidly — invaded relatively quickly, true ecological diversity was slow to recover, taking about 30 million years, well into the Late Triassic, for full recovery (Sahney & Benton, 2008). The Mesozoic Era, spanning roughly 250 to 66 million years before the present time and comprising the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, has been termed the ‘Age of Reptiles’; dinosaurs appeared in the Late Triassic and became the dominant terrestrial vertebrates over the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, while the first birds and ancestral mammals emerged in the Jurassic, remaining relatively small and ecologically insignificant through the end of the Cretaceous. The Mesozoic Era came to an end with the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) or Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-P) extinction, occurring around 66 million years ago, most often attributed to an asteroid impact spewing dust and sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight, inhibiting photosynthesis, abruptly cooling the Earth (Pope et al., 1998), and bringing about the extinction of an estimated three-quarters of terrestrial plant and animal species. Rebuilding again following the demise of the giant reptiles, the Cenozoic Era or the ‘Age of Mammals’ began, starting 66 million years ago and extending up through today.
During the Late Cretaceous, some 80-100 million years ago, the placental mammals split into four lines, one giving rise to the hoofed mammals, whales, carnivores,and bats, another leading to primates and rodents, a third to the elephants, among others and a fourth to the anteaters and armadillos (Marshall, 2009); early forms of most of the present mammalian orders emerged during the Eocene epoch, 56 to 34 million years ago. The first were small, but by the end of the Oligocene, 23 million years ago, there were large-bodied herbivores, specialized carnivores, and mammals inhabiting the air and water as well as land. Monkeys evolved during the Oligocene, 34 to 23 million years ago, with the ape lineage splitting from Old World monkeys about 25 million years ago; the apes differentiated over the Miocene, lasting from 23 to 5.3 million years ago, the human line diverging from its common ancestor with the chimpanzee and bonobo around four to six million years ago. By the Pleistocene epoch, the beginning of the Quaternary period, two million years ago, global temperatures having cooled throughout the preceding Pliocene, some very large land mammals and birds had come to inhabit the planet, all of which became extinct as the Pleistocene was winding down.
The factors contributing to the Late Quaternary Extinctions (LQE) have been reviewed and evaluated by Paul Koch and Anthony Barnosky (2006). As they discuss, 50,000 years ago the Earth was populated by many large mammals, including proboscideans — elephant-like mammals including mammoths and mastodons — giant ground sloths, camels, saber-tooth cats and a giant beaver in North America, woolly mammoths, rhinoceroses and giant deer with three-meter antlers in Eurasia, glyptodonts — giant armadillos the size of a car and weighing over 1,000 pounds — and litopterns — three-toed, camel-like mammals — in South America, and diprotodons — vegetarian, rhinoceros-sized wombats weighing up to 2.7 tonnes — in Australia, by 10,000 years ago, the start of the Holocene epoch, all of these had vanished. Reviewing evidence from archaeology, paleoecology, and climatology, Koch and Barnosky conclude that the worldwide disappearance of the Pleistocene megafauna — defined as animals weighing 44 kg or larger — can largely be attributed to human hunting, possibly aggravated by indirect anthropogenic effects like competition and habitat alteration, with changes in climate and other environmental factors also contributing to the patterns of disappearance. The impact was somewhat less severe in Eurasia, since ancestors of modern humans were present there from about 40,000 years ago, hunting with simpler tools, and this probably allowed the evolution of defensive behavior among prey. Africa, moreover, where humans originated, seems to have remained ‘a fortunate anomaly,’ losing only around half of its megafauna by the end of the Pleistocene, retaining the greatest number of large animals still alive today — although a modern extinction event, from uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction, may be bringing about their demise right now, as will be discussed in the following chapter (Chapter 12).
The best-preserved paleontological record is from North America, where ‘extinctions were rapid and pronounced,’ and may even be compatible with the ‘blitzkrieg’ hypothesis — the notion that human hunters slaughtered the large mammals mercilessly over a short period of time — something that seems unlikely in most other regions of the globe where extinctions occurred over longer periods. The of our own species, Homo sapiens, somewhere around 200,000 years ago, is thus considered to have been a major force leading to the extinction of many large mammals and significantly altering landscapes on all major continents, leaving us to inherit a planet with a post-Pleistocene fauna shorn of some of its more interesting and perhaps ecologically significant variants, and a planet that is now poised to lose many of its remaining specialized forms in the near future if we humans continue along on our current trajectory. Whether or not this trend will continue — whether we will go on waging so direct a war against nature — is currently under contestation; are we re-living out our early role as mega-killers, or will we become reflexive enough to activate our moral and change our behavior?
While the bodily forms of the Earth’s organisms can be seen as changing over time, the ecological relationships established among organisms can be visualized as large-scale patterns of interaction that show a kind of dynamic stability over space. Ecosystems are not simply collections of plants and animals, randomly or haphazardly thrown together; they are highly organized systems that are fundamentally structured by physics, the large-scale configuration of the system produced by the pathways through which energy flows. The basic conceptual framework for understanding ecosystem structure is often presented as a pyramid; the solar energy powering the whole system is first captured by photosynthesizing green plants, the ‘producers,’ at the base, and it flows upward through successive layers of ‘consumers,’ animals that can’t make their own food and so must eat other organisms power their own bodies . The collective biomass of these animals diminishes in a stepwise fashion, passing up the pyramid layer by layer, because the available energy diminishes at each step, since converting the body of one kind of organism into the body of another is energetically expensive. Aldo Leopold’s description of a terrestrial is one of the best around:
Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottom layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animal groups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores.
The species of a layer are not alike in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat. Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food and services to those above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance. Thus, for every carnivore there are hundreds of his prey, thousands of their prey, millions of insects, uncountable plants. (Leopold, 1949, p. 252)
That’s why ‘big, fierce animals are rare’ (Colinvaux, 1979): they need huge territories to support all the other animals that go into making up the lower layers of the pyramid, the prey animals and their prey animals and the plants that they eat, all together contributing enough transformed solar energy to maintain the large, fierce, active bodies of apex predators like lions and leopards.
The layers Leopold speaks of are called trophic levels, first the green plants (supported by microrganisms and nutrients in the soil) that form their own bodies out of air, water and sun, then on a level above them the animals that eat the plants’ bodies, the herbivores,a step above them the animals that eat some other animals as well as plants, the omnivores, and above them possibly several levels of animals that only eat other animals, the smaller, ‘meso’carnivores, below and at the top the apex predator, an animal able to feast on all the others and who usually doesn’t get eaten herself. A rule of thumb holds that the embodied energy goes down by about 90% in each step up a trophic level, such that the level above can contain only about 10% of the biomass of the one underneath — that’s why numbers of organisms generally get smaller, even as body size often gets larger (all the better to capture prey) — as they dine higher and higher up the pyramid. That’s also why humans draw an increasing amount of energy from the Earth the higher up the food chain they eat — much more energy, embodied in biomass, is required to grow the bodies of the animals on which they feast than would be required if people just met their needs primarily by eating plants directly — as our closest primate relatives still do today. Humans are not ecologically constituted to be apex predators. Aldo Leopold assigned humans to ‘an intermediate layer with the bears, raccoons and squirrels, which eat both meat and vegetables’ (1949), pointing out an ecological relationship that led environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott to add, “as omnivores, the population of human beings should, perhaps, be roughly twice that of bears, allowing for differences of size” (Callicott, 1980, p. 326).
Real-world ecosystems are usually far more complex than this pyramid with its discrete trophic levels would indicate, of course, so the movement of energy and materials is better described as making up food webs, interconnected chains linking different kinds of organisms, and including the microbial and fungal organisms that break down the bodies of plants and animals, releasing nutrients for reuptake by plants or processing it into organic matter again consumable by other organisms. The fundamental role of plant life, whose photosynthetic trapping of the sun’s energy generates the ‘net primary productivity’ — given the acronym of — that powers the activities of virtually all of the Earth’s other living creatures, must be retained firmly in mind. Now we are aware, however, that quite a bit of ‘ecosystem engineering’ is a result of animal life. The prevailing view in ecological science once held that the large-scale structure of plant-dominated terrestrial ecosystems was primarily due to the climate and soil conditions facilitating plant growth, but more recent studies are showing the great extent to which top-down control of herbivores by their predators can affect the vegetative community.
One famous example of the way the presence or absence of a carnivore at the highest trophic level can ‘cascade’ down the system is the way aspen forests have been recovering following the reintroduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park, their territories reducing elk grazing pressure on young aspen stands, ultimately changing the landscape. Another is the ongoing introduced instability of kelp forests in oceans around the world, as commercial exploitation led first to the extirpation of apex predators like sea otters and cod fishes, unleashing a rebound in their prey, populations of herbivorous sea urchins that subsequently overgrazed and diminished many kelp forests. Continued ‘fishing down’ of coastal marine food webs next led to extirpation of sea urchins in many places around the world, allowing kelp beds to regrow but this time ‘devoid of vertebrate apex predators,’ with large predatory crabs moving into the top spot in some places (Steneck et al., 2002); it remains to be seen where these systems will eventually restabilize, but one finding of this study is that the more biodiverse the system, the greater the likelihood it will be to systemic kelp deforestation. Moreover, the diversity of species is proving to have important effects on ecosystem structure more generally, with the different kinds of diversity — genetic diversity, diversity in the functional roles played by different organisms in the ecosystem, and diversity of their interactions in biotic networks — having their own kinds of effects; so far, research is showing “compelling scientific support for the idea that maintaining a high proportion of biological diversity leads to efficient and stable levels of ecosystem functioning” (Naeem et al., 2012, p. 1405).
Larger-scale, landscape-level patterns of interaction among animals of different trophic levels are also discernable over time and space, such as ‘migratory coupling,’ where the migrations of prey induce the corresponding migrations of their predators (Furey et al., 2018), while at smaller scales the regular patterns of banding or clustering of organisms that can be seen in aerial surveys across many different types of terrain are being explained in terms of self-organization resulting from short-range positive feedback — more vegetation grows around pre-existing plants because they pull more moisture up through their roots — coupled with long-range negative feedback — roots from different plants compete with one another in the drier soil between vegetated patches — a principle that seems to hold across many different ecosystems (Rietkerk & van de Koppel, 2008; Pringle & Tarnita, 2017). Of course, as we humans increasingly take over space with growing urbanization and the installation of ever-larger agroindustrial systems for feeding our growing population, less and less room is available to support these patterns of interaction among lifeforms. Just how far this mega-scale alteration in the flowing of life over space will reach is going to be increasingly contested in the years ahead.
In addition to the patterns we can see in the world around us, moreover, our appreciation of the “little things that run the world” has been growing as well. The phrase is taken from the title of a talk by Edward O. Wilson, referring to invertebrate animals, but it could be extended now to include the single-celled organisms, which we are learning contribute a significant part of our own body mass and biochemistry. Wilson pointed out that invertebrate species outnumber species of vertebrates by a factor of more than twenty, and can make up over 90% of the animal biomass on a hectare of land; their importance in food webs and pollination and other ecosystemic interactions is so great that Wilson expressed doubt that we humans could last more than a few months without them. Should all the invertebrates disappear, he maintained:
Most of the fishes, amphibians, birds and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of the majority of the forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The earth would rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, narrowing and closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them the last remnants of the vertebrates. The remaining fungi, after enjoying a population explosion of stupendous proportions, would also perish. Within a few decades the world would return to the state of a billion years ago, composed primarily of bacteria, algae, and a few other very simple multicellular plants. (Wilson, 1987, p. 345)
Wilson made these remarks at the opening of the invertebrate exhibit at the Zoological Park in Washington, DC, in 1987, and while the invertebrate-less world he presented seemed dismal, it also seemed far-fetched, since invertebrate populations appeared to be thriving in most places, and the occasion recognizing the importance of their conservation seemed to herald a new awareness of our need to treat them with care. More than 30 years afterwards, however, with populations of many kinds of invertebrates essential to ecosystem functioning on the decline now, his words sound a little more sinister. Meanwhile, a recent examination of the invertebrates ‘right under our noses’ has shown that, typically, more than a hundred species of insects and other arthropods live in and around people’s homes worldwide, and efforts to ‘go to war’ with chemicals against pests like cockroaches simply increase the evolution of their resistance. Moreover, the importance of even smaller ‘little things’ is coming to our attention as well, including the microbes that colonize our bodies, our houses, and other human-occupied spaces. A study of dust collected from forty homes in one American city documented an average of around eighty thousand species of bacteria and archaea, the vast majority of which are benign or beneficial to us humans, and despite people’s tendency to want to ‘kill them all,’ it’s being discovered that it is actually healthier to be surrounded by more microbial diversity rather than less (Dunn, 2018); the declining biodiversity in urban homes appears to be associated with an increase in the incidence of allergies and other chronic inflammatory diseases (Hanski et al., 2012). Trillions of microbes also inhabit the human gut, and enter into complex relationships with our diets, giving rise to metabolic products that have important effects on human physiology which are currently under investigation (Gentile & Weir, 2018).
In the words of philosopher Evan Thompson, “a living being is not sheer exteriority … but instead embodies a kind of interiority, that of its own immanent purposiveness” (2007, p. 225), and it is recently being realized that this may apply to plants as well as animals and to the unicellular as well as the multicellular. The more we learn about life, its amazing complexity and its fundamental commonality as it extends over time and space, the more it becomes clear that there must be some kind of ‘mind,’ some purposive inwardness that pushes ahead, pursuing its own life in its own way, within each living organism, ‘all the way down.’
Microbial life, being life, by definition is of such organized complexity that we should not be surprised to find perception, motility, and evidence of subtle responsiveness to environmental conditions even in the single-celled. The green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, for example, has an eyespot composed of rhodopsin photoreceptors that, when stimulated, release a current of calcium ions that modify its flagellar motion, orienting it toward or away from light (Kateriya et al., 2004); the slime mold Physarum polycephalum, moreover, has been described as showing ‘primitive intelligence’ by solving a maze, finding the minimum length solution joining two nutrient locations at different ends of an agar labyrinth (Nakagaki et al., 2000). Plants, too, are exquisitely sensitive to factors such as light, moisture and nutrients, as well as predators and pollinators in their environment, and they respond to them in ways that further their growth and propagation; they also communicate with fellow plants, of the same and other species, within their ecological communities. Since plants are sessile (rooted to one place), their behavioral repertoire is necessarily more limited in terms of movement, but they exhibit many sophisticated responses that can rewardingly be studied along the lines of animal behavior, including anticipation of future events, memory, and communication with other organisms (Karban, 2008). They respond individually to the heterogeneity of light and moisture in their environment throughout their growth, not only by placing root and leaf development in the most favorable circumstances, but in ways that have been described as showing ‘choice’; the parasitic dodder plant, for example, actively rejects potential host plants of inferior nutrition by turning its shoot growth at right angles from such stems and elongating directly away from them (Kelly, 1992).
It has long been noted that plants respond to leaf-devouring insect attacks by releasing volatile chemicals, a response that not only leads other plants to beef up their own leaf level of insect-repellents but that sometimes draws in specific insect predators and parasitizing wasps (Pare & Tumlinson, 1999). The timing and intensity of release can vary in accordance with a multiplicity of environmental factors, and blends of different odor-producing volatiles can be produced in response to different leaf-eaters, possibly summoning particular carnivorous insects specialized to feast on each kind of herbivore, making it a highly sophisticated response that has been considered, according to a ‘behavioural ecological approach’ that speaks in terms of plant ‘decisions,’ and a ‘crying for help’ within the larger ecological community (Dicke, 2009). It has also been known for several decades now that many forest trees are linked together in underground networks by the mycorrhizal fungi associated with their roots, and they have been shown to send each other nutrients, communicate warning signals, and recognize kin through these networks. According to Suzanne Simard, another scientist who does not hesitate to draw a parallel with the behavior of animals, “the topology of mycorrhizal networks is similar to neural networks, with scale-free patterns and small-world properties that are correlated with local and global efficiencies important in intelligence” (Simard, 2018, p. 191). The communicative properties of trees have also been conveyed to the public by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2016); he speaks of the ‘wood-wide-web’ that connects the trees in a forest, noting that the ‘mother trees,’ the big, old trees that serve as hubs, ‘suckle their young,’ pumping sugars through the network into the roots of young saplings too shaded to survive on their own (Grant, 2018).
The similarities between plant and animal behavior and, in some respects, their physiology prompted a group of scientists to announce in 2006 the founding of a new subspecialty, ‘plant neurobiology,’ maintaining that ‘the behavior plants exhibit is coordinated across the whole organism by some form of integrated signaling, communication, and response system,’ one that ‘includes long-distance electrical signals, vesicle-mediated transport of auxin in specialized vascular tissues, and production of chemicals known to be neuronal in animals’ (Brenner et al., 2006). The announcement was met with outrage from a certain quarter of the plant science community, more than thirty luminaries signing onto a letter noting that “there is no evidence for structures such as neurons, synapses or a brain in plants” (although the ‘plant neurobiologists’ had made no such claims) and challenging the proponents of the new field “to reevaluate critically the concept and to develop an intellectually rigorous foundation for it” (Alpi et al., 2007, p. 136). One of the signatories, Lincoln Taiz, interviewed by Michael Pollan, speaks dismissively of ‘a strain of teleology in plant biology’ and strenuously rejects the notion of ‘choice’ or ‘decision-making’ in plants, explaining that “the plant response is based entirely on the net flow of auxin and other chemical signals,” and maintaining that the verb ‘decide’ is a term that “implies free will.” He amends his stance, however, with the caveat “of course, one could argue that humans lack free will too, but that is a separate issue” (Pollan, 2013). This last statement is rather telling — when one is coming from a reductionist position that flattens down the purposiveness of all life into the bumping about of chemical compounds- one must be sure to keep that belief system ‘separate’ from our understanding of how we actually live our own lives. Whereas, accepting the evolutionary continuity that exists among lifeforms seen as whole organisms lets us recognize the purposiveness, intentional behavior and intelligence that exists throughout living nature — in us and in everything else that’s alive- with no need to make a special exception for ourselves. Pollan observes that “our big brains, and perhaps our experience of inwardness, allow us to feel that we must be fundamentally different — suspended above nature and other species as if by some metaphysical ‘skyhook,’ to borrow a phrase from philosopher Daniel Dennett.” But he notes that “plant neurobiologists are intent on taking away our skyhook, completing the revolution that Darwin started but which remains — psychologically at least — incomplete” (Pollan, 2013, n.p.). Monica Gagliano is another scientist who has already made the paradigm shift; unapologetic about speaking of learning, memory, and intelligence in plants (Gagliano et al., 2016). She is at the same time, critical of “those who make the big claims and write grand opinion pieces,” saying “we don’t need another opinion piece” — “we need to do the science.” Having started as an animal ecologist, she prefers to call her field ‘plant cognitive ethology,’ maintaining that, “for me, a plant isn’t an object, it’s always a subject that is interacting with other subjects in the environment” (Morris, 2018, n.p.).
Unlike plants, however, animals typically move rapidly around in their environments and so must have a way of coordinating their movements rapidly — hence the emergence of the nervous system. Simple animals like sponges rely on cell-to-cell signaling, and radially symmetric animals like jellyfish make do with diffuse nerve nets, but the bilaterians generally coordinate their movements via well-developed nervous systems that are believed to have originated in a last common ancestor arising over 500 million years ago. The basic structure is a linear nerve cord with ‘ganglion’ enlargements supplying each body segment, and a larger ‘brain’ at the front end; in invertebrates, including many worms, crustaceans, and insects, the nerve cord is divided in two and placed ventrally, below the major organs of the body, while in vertebrates it is dorsally located and encased in a bony vertebral column. The insect brain is made up of three regions, the protocerebrum, deuterocerebrum, and tritocerebrum. The largest region is the protocerebrum that houses the mushroom bodies, paired neuron clusters making up the ‘higher’ brain centers, thought to be important in learning, memory, and behavioral complexity, especially in bees, wasps and ants; it is estimated that the mushroom bodies contain about 340,000 neurons in the honeybee. An example of complex cognitive behavior in insects is the ‘waggle dance’ of honeybees, which communicates information to hive mates about the direction and distance to sources of nectar and pollen. Faced with the striking degree of organizational similarity among living animal forms, one scientist recently summarized, “as our knowledge of neural development increases, so does the list of conserved features, pointing to the existence of a highly sophisticated, single species as the origin of most extant nervous systems” (Ghysen, 2003, p. 555).
The vast majority of animal forms utilize the sensory information they take in from their environment in order to move in appropriate, survival-related ways. Hence they will have a great variety of perceptual abilities, forms of cognitive processing, and behavioral responses shaped by the different ecological niches they inhabit, something that we tend to take for granted but should recognize as a distinctive feature of animal life that extends far beyond the boundaries of our own species. Development of the human brain follows the same basic trajectory as that of all mammalian brains, the neural tube expanding into hindbrain, midbrain and forebrain regions, with the latter giving rise to an expanded cerebral cortex. Some other mammals also manifest a high degree of cortical development, including the other great apes, elephants, and cetaceans such as the bottle-nosed dolphin. To put our own brain power in perspective, we will look at what we now know about the brains of some other animals, bearing in mind that we are learning more all the time as careful investigations are carried out utilizing new technologies and with an open-minded attitude to what we may find.
The brain of the false killer whale, at almost 4,000 g, is more than twice the size of the human brain, at roughly 1,500 g, while the brain of the African elephant is almost three times larger, at four to 5,000 g, and the brain of the sperm whale, the largest of the mammals, is almost six times larger, at around 8,000 g. The cortical surfaces of the brains of the two cetaceans are also more highly convoluted, cetaceans showing the greatest degree of convolution among the mammals. Earlier comparisons have focused on the ratio of brain to body size, the ‘encephalization quotient,’ but this appears a rather crude measurement in light of a newly developed technology allowing for a quantitative assessment of the number of neurons and non-neuronal cells in different regions of the brain and in total, opening up insights into a greater degree of diversity in brain architecture than heretofore appreciated (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). Using this technology, it has been discovered that the different orders of mammals have different ‘cellular scaling rules’ determining the density of neurons present per gram of brain tissue. Larger brains in rodents, for example, will contain larger total numbers of neurons than will smaller rodent brains, but the brains of primates ‘scale in a much more space-saving, economical manner,’ such that neuron density is greater, and so increasing brain size in primates results in an even greater number of neurons, gram for gram, than would be found in rodents. By this measure, humans, with the largest brains among the primates, do have the greatest number of brain cells — in a 1.5 kg brain, 86 billion neurons and 85 billion non-neuronal cells have been found — but only when compared with the other, smaller-brained primates. According to the author of these studies, “we need to rethink our notions about the place that the human brain holds in nature and evolution, and rewrite some of the basic concepts that are taught in textbooks” (Herculano-Houzel, 2009, pp. 9-10). Ours is not qualitatively different from other primate brains, but simply has the number of neurons expected for its size; it is basically just ‘a linearly scaled-up primate brain.’ Moreover, our cerebral cortex, which makes up 82% of our brain mass at an average of 1,233 g (out of an average 1,500 g brain), holds only 16 billion neurons (19% of the total in the brain), a fraction similar to that seen in other primates and some other mammals. While the cerebellum — a part of the brain until recently considered solely devoted to movement coordination, but now becoming the focus of increasing interest as its complex interconnections with the cerebral cortex are explored — weighs only 154 g but contains 69 billion neurons (Herculano-Houzel, 2009).
The new research not only gives us a new perspective on our own brains, and thereby our ‘cognitive’ place in nature, it is beginning to change our views of other animals, what they are really like and what they might be capable of, cognitively. The brain of the African elephant is not only roughly three times larger than our own, it contains roughly three times as many neurons — 257 billion of them as calculated in the pioneering study (Herculano-Houzel, 2014). The vast majority of them, however — 251 billion, or 97.5% — are found in the cerebellum, with only 5.6 billion in the cerebral cortex — and the neurons that are found there are thought to be an average of 10 to 40 times larger than those found in other mammals, with what this might mean for cognition being currently unknown. The size of the elephant cerebellum, which makes up more than 25% of the total brain mass, the largest proportionally of all mammals, has been speculated to be related to infrasound communication or possibly to processing the complex sensory and motor requirements involved in the sensitive, manipulatory use of the trunk — but much remains to be discovered about this fascinating animal.
The numbers and distributions of neurons in the brains of cetaceans are yet to be determined — one estimate was 11 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex of the false killer whale, but this could be off by a factor of ten, giving an estimate of between 21 billion and 212 billion for the whole brain, depending on the scaling rules for the order, as yet undetermined (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). One thing that is known is that the architecture of cetacean brains is even more divergent from the typical mammalian plan than that of elephants. While their brains are the most highly convoluted among the mammals, their cerebral cortex is comparatively thin and appears to lack one of the usual six layers of cells. Moreover, instead of an expansion of the frontal lobes, as observed in primates, there has been an expansion toward the sides, in the temporal and parietal regions, and there is a completely new lobe, the paralimbic lobe, not found in any other mammal, the function of which is so far unknown (Marino, 2002) but possibly may be related to echolocation or coordination of synchronous movements in groups of animals. The pattern of projection of visual and auditory information onto the cerebral cortex is also highly unusual among mammals, as is the marked degree of independence between the two cerebral hemispheres, which reportedly sleep independently of one another, and seem to be altogether lacking in REM sleep.
The brains of birds, too, have recently been found to be more remarkable than once believed. Birds have a pallium instead of the neocortex found in mammals; the surface of their brains is smooth rather than convoluted, and the cells in their cerebrum are arranged in nuclear clusters instead of layers. It has recently been discovered, however, that their neurons are even more tightly packed than in the brains of primates, with parrots and songbirds having about twice as many neurons as primate brains of the same mass, and their brains are truly ‘miniaturized,’ since the short distance between neurons necessitated by their high densities likely results in a higher speed of information processing (Olkowicz et al., 2016). Parrots, like primates, show an increased connectivity between the telencephalon and the cerebellum, possibly indicative of an interplay between fine motor skills and complex cognition in birds (Gutierrez-Ibanez et al., 2018), along the lines of what is being investigated in mammals. What is being learned about the brains of birds, moreover, is spurring a new look at the brains of reptiles and even fish. The mobulid rays, a group of cartilaginous fishes comprising the manta and devil rays, have high encephalization quotients, a relatively large telencephalon making up over 60% of the brain mass, and a high degree of cerebellar foliation thought to be due to their active, maneuverable lifestyles and highly developed social and migratory behavior (Ari, 2011). A study of selected genes from mammalian neocortex and homologous genes from avian and turtle brains found, once again, a ‘highly conserved’ pattern of gene expression, supporting the conclusion that many of the cell types, neurotransmitters, and circuitry are widely shared among the vertebrates, preserving the major connections and performing very similar functions despite major differences in brain structure and tissue architecture, attesting to fundamental continuity since the last common ancestor, over 500 million years ago.
Among the ‘brainier’ members of the mammalian and avian classes — particularly the primates, elephants, whales and dolphins, parrots, corvids and some other songbirds, and even the mobulid rays (Ari & D’Agostino, 2016) — we are finding many, many examples of ‘higher cognition.’ Over the last five to 10 years or so, there has been a veritable explosion of research reports, popular articles and books detailing what’s being discovered about their abilities, and it is now widely accepted that some of these animals engage in tool use, mirror self-recognition, imitation, vocal learning, and complex social cognition likely including ‘theory of mind,’ to name a few indicators. Frans deWaal discusses the cognitive abilities of some of these other animals, from apes and monkeys to crows and parrots, elephants and octopuses, and even ants, wasps and bees, raising deep questions about our common assumption: that humans are the only living beings capable of intelligent thought (and that only the human kind of thought should be considered ‘intelligent’), an attitude that, because it is exclusively ‘centered upon the human,’ is termed anthropocentrism.
One way to see how our thinking has changed can be illustrated by consideration of what we have been learning about birds, both in terms of behavior and in brain structure. As discussed by Ackerman (2016), birds have now been extensively documented to have complex cognitive abilities, including memory and spatial mapping (Clark’s nutcrackers can bury and retrieve pine seeds from up to 5,000 caches spread over hundreds of square miles), tool use (New Caledonian crows fashion elaborate tools from branches and bend wires into hooks for obtaining food), vocal learning (mockingbirds can imitate, with near perfection, as many as two hundred different songs of other birds), social learning (a few great tits learned to open milk bottles in a single town in the 1920s and the behavior spread widely over Britain over subsequent decades; crows can recognize individual humans and spread information about the ‘dangerous’ scientists who capture them across large social networks), mirror self-recognition (Eurasian magpies will scratch away a mark put on their throat when seen in a mirror), and complex social interaction, manipulation, and possibly ‘theory of mind’ (western scrub jays keep track of other birds that might be watching them when they cache their food, and will recache it later if necessary; male Eurasian jays seem to understand their mates’ specific desires for certain foods). But until recently, little effort was put into making such observations, since until very recently we had little respect for ‘bird brains.’
The lines giving rise to the primates, elephants, and cetaceans probably diverged over 95 million years ago, with independent evolution occurring in these lines ever since, so it is not surprising that differences are to be found in the overall structure of their brains. The split between what became mammals and birds came even earlier, sometime around 300 million years ago. Nevertheless, parrots and primates “show impressive convergence of complex cognitive abilities, and this is accompanied by convergent changes in the brain,” including relatively large brain size, telencephalon size, size of associative areas of the telencephalon, and increased connectivity between the telencephalon and cerebellum- though this increased connectivity has evolved over different neural pathways (Gutierrez-Ibanez et al., 2018, p. 5). “It has been suggested that intelligence in these taxa can only have arisen by convergent evolution,” observes cognitive biologist Nathan Emery:
driven by the need to solve comparable social and ecological problems; simple examination of six ecological variables across corvids, parrots, other birds, monkeys, apes, elephants and cetaceans reveals that certain preconditions correlate with the development of complex cognition: omnivorous generalist diet, highly social, large relative brain size, innovative, long developmental period, extended longevity, and variable habitat, [and] this exercise suggests that the evolution of intelligence was highly correlated with the ability to think and act flexibly within an ever-changing environment. (Emery, 2005, p. 37)
The same can be said about the conditions under which our own species evolved, of course, placing us within the spectrum of cognitively complex animals, one with a very high degree of behavioral flexibility indeed.
We need to back up a bit now in order to place ourselves within the larger context of life on Earth, so as not to make the mistake of imagining that human beings are uniquely distinguished from other animals by their exclusive possession of ‘mind.’ We humans are a kind of animal, a large-bodied primate to be precise, very closely related to chimpanzees and bonobos — our line having branched with theirs five to six million years ago — and also closely related, although somewhat less so, with the other great apes, the gorillas and orangutans. The mammalian order of living primates is divided into the prosimians, consisting of the lemurs, lorises and tarsiers, and the anthropoid primates, including the new world monkeys, old world monkeys, and the members of the superfamily Hominoidea, which itself is divided into the Hylobatidae, the family of the smaller or lesser apes, the gibbons and siamangs, and the Hominidae family of the great apes, made up of three subfamilies, the orangutans, the gorillas, and one (depending on the method of grouping) which includes chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans. The primates are thought to have evolved from a group of insectivorous early mammals living late in the Cretaceous, emerging as squirrel-like mammals in the Paleocene that began to develop the classic primate features of grasping hands and feet, stereoscopic vision and relatively large brains in the Eocene. First, the prosimians evolved and radiated across several major continents, flourishing until they were displaced by the later-evolving monkeys and apes, except in Madagascar, where they can still be found — if hanging on precariously — today. Monkeys evolved over the Oligocene and apes in the Miocene, with the early ancestors of humans probably making their appearance early in the Pliocene. By the late Pleistocene, Homo sapiens had appeared and was already beginning to make an impact on its environment.
If we’re going to think about our species’ relationship with nature, however, we need to consider the kind of ecological role that is played by the closest relatives of ours, the apes and the primates in general. Except for the insectivorous tarsiers, our primate relatives are far and away predominantly vegetarians, and our human digestive tracts are much more like those of the other great apes than like the mammalian carnivores. Most of the apes and monkeys are classified as either folivores (animals primarily subsisting on leaves), or frugivores (animals for whom fruit makes up a considerable portion of the diet). Folivores have the advantage of greater abundance and accessibility of food, but frugivores obtain a higher concentration of calories by eating ripe fruit, and it is thought that the greater energy provided, in combination with the cognitive demands of obtaining a high-quality but patchily distributed and sometimes only seasonally available food, have led to a larger brain size in otherwise similar species (Milton, 2006). Among the great apes, gorillas are primarily folivores, while orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos are primarily frugivores, although all have been observed to opportunistically consume invertebrates and the occasional small vertebrate. Chimpanzees will sometimes engage in cooperative hunting of medium-sized mammals — often monkeys — with social sharing of the meat. In places where they coexist with colobus monkeys, they can sometimes have a significant effect on monkey populations (Lambert, 2012). However, great apes and other primates do not seem to play a role in the ‘top down’ control of other animals. Meat actually makes up no more than about five to six percent of the chimpanzee diet, most of that being in the form of insects (Goodall, 1986, p. 232; Milton, 1987, p. 105) while the amount of animal flesh consumed by the other great apes is usually quite a bit less. According to Katharine Milton, although early humans began adding meat to their diets as the climate got colder in the Pliocene, “this behavior does not mean that people today are biologically suited to the virtually fiber-free diet many of us now consume,” since “in its general form, our digestive tract does not seem to be greatly modified from that of the common ancestor of apes and humans, which was undoubtedly a strongly herbivorous animal” (Milton, 2006, n.p.). Primates in nature thus do not have the ecological role of apex predator; the key role they play in ecosystem function is that of seed dispersers, moving the seeds of their favored fruit trees considerable distances and thereby helping to maintain tropical forests; they have also been considered vegetative ecosystem engineers through herbivory, shaping forest structure as they dine selectively on flowers, leaves and bark of certain trees (Beaune, 2015; Chapman et al., 2013).
The great apes notably have a very slow rate of reproduction; chimpanzee mothers suppress ovulation by suckling their young for four to six years, creating a long interbirth interval between what are usually single offspring, resulting in no more than four to fi ve young over a lifetime (Tutin, 1994). Their average density on the lands they occupy is also quite sparse, depending on habitat type and social organization, but is usually on the order of less than one to two to fi ve individuals per square kilometre, with home ranges that can (if not limited by human encroachment) extend to over 500 square kilometers for chimpanzee communities of 20 to 100 individuals (Nishida & Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, 1987). It has been suggested that it is the cognitive capacity of different species that places an upper limit on group size, since an individual can only maintain awareness of a certain number of relationships at the same time (Dunbar, 1992). The difference between the average densities of chimpanzee societies and our own when concentrated in urban centers is really quite striking, and bears consideration in light of Robin Dunbar’s pronouncement that 150 is around the limit on the number of individuals any of us is capable of knowing well (Hill & Dunbar, 2003).
Most of the primates are highly social, often with more or less well-defined hierarchies keeping individuals ‘in their place’ as a function of social standing, but a wide range of types of social organization is found within the primate order. Among the great apes, orangutans tend to live a fairly solitary existence within tropical forests, while gorillas usually live in troops of several females with offspring dominated by an older, male silverback. The two chimpanzee species typically live in multimale, multifemale groups, the common chimp groupings usually dominated by one or several alpha males. In contrast, the bonobos seemingly accord females the upper hand — and, it should be noted, we humans are equally related to both. In chimpanzee societies, intergroup male-male competition, with several powerful males, vying for the position of alpha-male, is often the most noticeable preoccupation.  On the other hand, some primates also seem to have, if not a desire for ‘equality,’ at least an innate sense of ‘justice’ — or at least an acute sense of how their rewards compare with those of competing conspecifics — that is thought to contribute to cooperation on the basis of equal sharing within the group. de Waal and his student, Sarah Brosnan, taught captive capuchin monkeys to exchange plastic tokens for food, but when a monkey discovers that her reward is only a bit of cucumber while her neighbor is getting grapes, she shows her displeasure and throws the cucumber out of the cage (Brosnan & de Waal, 2003). The primate order encompasses animals with a wide range of behavioral repertoires, and primates, generally, are perhaps the most behaviorally flexible among the mammals, with humans the most flexible of all, biologically speaking. We humans, thus, innately possess a great many degrees of freedom, allowing for a great many alternative behaviors, many different ways of asserting our moral agency, possible within the realm of human choice.
But, if we are in fact so similar to other organisms as a result of evolutionary continuity, what about our much-vaunted human uniqueness? Presumably it has to do with our superior intelligence, but if our cerebral cortex is seen as a little less special in light of what we’re learning about brain structure and organization in other animals, we were also taken down a peg or two as research began to investigate intelligence in the workings of both biological and artificial systems. It seems that, when the artificial intelligence (AI) folks first started trying to engineer computerized robots that could actually move around and deal with physical objects, they were embarrassingly unsuccessful — because they had been assuming that real intelligence was based on the kind of rule-governed manipulation of abstract symbols, the kind of linear, if-A-and-B-then-C-must-follow logic of which philosophers are generally so proud. It turns out that things don’t work that way for animals trying to get around in the real world, however: they appear to identify objects through a process of pattern recognition involving some complex neural circuitry, and their interactions are guided by yet more neuronal connections organized into networks that become activated when particular skill sets are required — and, as we are discovering, the same is true of us (Preston, 1991; Davion, 2002). Even much of what we consider our ‘highest’ mental activity — our moral reasoning, for example — seems to be carried out by neural networks that we share in basic organization with many other animals. Much of the research disclosing this information is quite recent, utilizing functional neuroimaging (fMRI) in human beings responding to morally relevant scenarios. What was discovered, according to one team of researchers, is that ”the psychological processes underlying moral choices recruit socio-emotional and cognitive processes that are domain-general” (FeldmanHall et al., 2014, p. 297), meaning that there is no set of ‘moral’ circuitry peculiar to humans that enables us to think and behave in a moral sphere uniquely our own. Rather, moral reasoning activates patterns of circuitry involving emotional and social cognition such as and , the ability to understand another’s point of view — circuitry enabling similar sorts of cognition in at least the brainier types of nonhuman animals as well. In humans, the brain regions involved in what we consider moral reasoning include the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — attuned to emotional response — and the right temporoparietal junction– involved in ‘theory of mind’ processing in nonmoral contexts as well as moral ones. As another pair of researchers conclude, “so far, the uniquely moral brain has appeared nowhere — perhaps because it does not exist” (Young & Dungan, 2012, p. 7). This conclusion is becoming increasingly clear as further research is carried out. All in all, morality is supported not by a single brain circuitry or structure, but by a multiplicity of circuits that overlap with other general complex processes, according to Pascual et al. (2013, p. 5) “The ‘moral brain’ does not exist per se: rather, moral processes require the engagement of specific structures of both the ‘emotional’ and the ‘cognitive’ brains” (Pascual et al., 2013, p. 6).
On the other hand, a recent development that supporting continuity between us and some other animals with respect to how morality ‘works’ — how social animals maintain harmony and cooperation within the group — has been the discovery of . Mirror neurons are cells within the brains of certain animals that become active both when an animal performs certain motor movements and when that animal sees or hears another animal perform the action. They were first discovered by accident, the legend goes, when a rhesus monkey, with electrodes implanted in the brain for other purposes, showed a pattern of activity corresponding to arm, hand and mouth movements — which the monkey was not carrying out — while watching one of the researchers eat his lunch. In the human brain, mirror neurons are concentrated in the posterior part of the inferior frontal gyrus and in the rostral part of the posterior parietal cortex; working together, they seem to transmit information about the goal or intention of another’s movements.
These mirror neurons are believed to be connected with the insula and the limbic system to form a large-scale network supporting our ability to feel empathy (Iacoboni, 2009). If perceiving the way others feel through sensory cues sets these ‘mirror’ neurons to resonating with those of the other being, we, in essence, are able to “feel each other’s feelings.” It is “something we accomplish . . . naturally, effortlessly, and quickly” that seems well explained by the incorporation into this neural network of “a prereflective, automatic mechanism of mirroring what is going on in the brain of other people,” according to Marco Iacoboni (2009, p. 666). Recognizing their existence has been said to ‘dissolve’ what has been called ‘the problem of other minds’, the question of how we can come to know that others have minds and, roughly, what they are thinking. Moreover, since “a proximate mechanism that evolved to serve the ultimate goal of cooperation . . . will yield benefits for all contributors” (de Waal, 2008, p. 281), it has been claimed that “the evolutionary process made us wired for empathy” (Iacoboni, 2009, p. 666). Such mirroring neurons have also been found in some of the ‘brainier’ social animals, including other primates, dolphins and birds, he notes, evidence of the kind of ‘interiority’ that we humans also possess. Giacomo Rizzolatti, the original discoverer of mirror neurons, suggests that the mirror neuron system allows understanding of the actions of others ‘from the inside’, providing “a profound natural link between individuals that is crucial for establishing inter-individual interactions” (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010, p. 273). However, caution has been raised against ‘an overly enthusiastic tendency’ to overinterpret possible connections between the mirror neuron system and empathy, since there are likely to be a number of different neural pathways involved in this complex phenomenon, and the empirical evidence for a direct connection with mirror neurons is limited (Lamm & Majdandzic, 2015).
These neurons may also be implicated in processes that have the opposite effect in human beings, in a way that is intimately connected with our major claim to ‘uniqueness,’ our remarkable facility with language and symbols (Corballis, 2010). The inferior frontal area in the macaque brain where mirror neurons were first discovered, area F5, roughly corresponds with Broca’s area in the human brain, one of our important language areas, and in subsequent studies of human ‘mirroring,’ neurons in the language areas of the left hemisphere have been found to be activated (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998). Whereas in the monkey’s brain the mirroring area is considered to be primarily involved in hand movements, this striking correspondence has led these and other researchers to propose that human speech, and later language more generally, may have originated with hand gestures, socially shared, which came to be adapted for intentional communication. However it came about, for the majority of us humans at least, our primary language areas are situated within the left hemisphere of our brains, and the left hemisphere’s contribution to our human uniqueness may possibly be a key as to why we have increasingly been waging a war against nature, as well as wars against each other from time to time.
A functional differentiation between the two cerebral hemispheres extends far back in vertebrate evolution; birds, for example, have been shown to be more effective in pecking at grains of food using their right eyes, controlled by their left hemispheres (since major nerve tracts cross over inside the brain), while scanning for predators overhead with the left eyes, controlled by their right hemispheres (Vallortigara, 2000; Rogers, 2012). Many subtle and not-so-subtle differences in function between the two hemispheres are still being discovered in humans, but in the view of Iain McGilchrist, a British psychiatrist and philosopher who has devoted many years to studying the neuropsychological specializations of the hemispheres, “the most fundamental difference” between them — and something that would seem to pertain to hemispherically-lateralized animals across the board — is that there is a basic difference in the type of attention they direct toward the world (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 4).
The right hemisphere tends to apprehend ‘what’s out there’ broadly, holistically and in context, recognizing other beings as already embedded in social relationships with the self. The left hemisphere, in contrast, directs a narrow, focused attention toward parts and pieces of things, tends to favor thinking in abstract terms and following a linear sequence of ‘logical’ reasoning, and generally comes at things with a use-orientation, categorizing them in terms of how the individual animal, in competition with others, might benefit from exploiting them. The role of the right temporoparietal junction in theory-of-mind processing, important in social cognition and moral reasoning, should be kept in mind. Ideally, the two hemispheres work reciprocally and in coordination with one another. The proper sequence of neural processing of incoming information, McGilchrist maintains, is that the right hemisphere initially takes in the immediate, real-time presencing of what’s in the organism’s total environmental surround; then, passing across the corpus callosum to the left hemisphere, the most salient aspects of it are abstracted, categorized and evaluated for use or threat; and finally this information is re-presented to the right hemisphere for reintegration into a more thorough and once again holistic understanding of the overall situation — a sequence that can be represented RH > LH > RH — presumably enabling the organism to take appropriate action within its lived context (McGilchrist, 2009, pp. 189–208).
Our left hemispheres have enabled us to examine the world around us in great detail, and, through the use of linear logic, to formulate and test scientific hypotheses. Without these specialized skills, we would not have been able to discover all the intricacies of living organisms of which we have recently become aware. But its propensity for abstraction in combination with its general use-orientation, when not counterbalanced by the right hemisphere’s ability to connect with others and put things in larger perspective, has most likely contributed to the way our society dismisses nonhuman others and nature in general as merely ‘resources’ for us to use, and it may also be a significant factor in perpetuating the continuing intergroup conflicts within our human realm.
Left hemisphere dominance may also be responsible for a certain linearity of thought — unfortunately emphasized throughout our educational systems today — that may serve to block our ability to engage in , something desperately needed in order to understand the impacts of all the processes our ‘war against nature’ is unleashing now. This preference for linearity may underlie some of the ‘short-termism’ with which we have approached just about everything, from human population growth to the social spread of unsustainable habits to the accumulation of plastic trash on our beaches. Populations and positive-feedback processes without external controls don’t grow linearly over time but rather exponentially. However, just as a tangent drawn between two points on a curved surface can provide a reasonable approximation of the path from A to B if they’re close enough together, growth in components of these systems may seem linear if the time interval of evaluation is short enough. Therefore, projections of consequences may lead to overestimation of the time until thresholds are crossed, as well as serious underestimation of all the repercussions as trend lines intersect over time. Should the manufacturers of disposable plastics have been looking ahead to the dissemination of their products worldwide and their eventual fragmentation into indigestible particles contaminating worldwide food webs? It is a serious question to ask: Why not?
It is the degree to which many of us modern humans seem to be ‘stuck’ in the left hemisphere mode, failing to reintegrate its insights into the holistic picture supplied by the right, that McGilchrist believes may lie at the heart of many of today’s pressing problems, as will be discussed a little later on.
To zoom back out of our examination of brain organization and cognition for now and focus more closely on ‘who we are’ and how we got to be that way, evolutionary biology paints a picture of our early primate ancestors living in relatively small social groupings that had to cooperate in order to survive, just as our closest relatives, the great apes, do today. Our progenitors fanned out from the tropical forests into other habitats, coordinating hunting practices to supplement their mostly vegetarian diets and later domesticating plants and animals to ensure a more consistent food supply. People worked together, sharing tasks within the group and often competing with other groups of humans for needed resources, sometimes engaging in violent intergroup conflict along the lines of what primatologists call , observed among chimpanzees in the wild today (Wrangham, 1996). We should remind ourselves, however, that humans are equally close genetically to the other chimpanzee species, the bonobos, whose social organization is somewhat different and who have been seen to engage in peaceful intergroup interaction, which thus must also be seen as an available option within our larger ‘genetic toolkit.’ As discussed earlier, the need for cooperation within the group, to maintain its integrity and to defend against threats coming from outside the group, is what many think gave rise to the development of our ethical sensibilities, with the help of our neural wiring that enables us to feel empathy (de Waal, 2009). Too much individual selfishness and too little altruism toward other group members would produce uncooperative bands with a survival disadvantage when pitted against more cohesive tribes of people that worked well together. Human security, then, emerged from small, face-to-face communities that worked together to make their living from the local bioregion and successfully fend off predators and competing human tribes. Individual lives might be more or less difficult, depending on the vagaries of the total environment, and wars might be fought with other bands of humans, but nature itself was the provider, if not always a benign one, during this long period of our evolution. Humans were an integral part of the natural world as we, like all other species, did what came naturally in order to survive, and our early belief systems generally included a core of respect, if not reverence, for Nature, in recognition of its fundamental role in sustaining life.
One definition of culture is ‘shared symbolic meaning,’ which primatologist Carel van Schaik traces back to the socially learned labeling of edible foods or dangerous predators, seen in a variety of animal species, developing into the emergence of special skills and/or special communicative signals unique to particular populations of nonhuman primates, and finally to the conveyance of meaning by arbitrary signs (symbols), an ability that seems to be possessed rudimentarily by certain groupings of both chimpanzees and orangutans living in the wild (van Schaik, 2004, pp. 156-157). In the primate lineage that includes both chimps and humans, where social groupings came to be dominated by male coalitions engaging in lethal raiding and later in more sophisticated forms of warfare, it seems a crucial threshold was crossed once group membership could be signified by means of behavioral or linguistic conventions. In a move that seems to directly counter Iacoboni’s feel-good role for mirror neurons, Van Schaik theorizes that “between-group hostility, by favoring symbolic cultures, helped to lay the foundation for human language” (van Schaik, 2004, p. 158). Our ancestors’ ability to cooperate was greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate using sound, sign and gesture, but this applied primarily to those within the social group. Once a simple manifestation of our biology as social primates, held together by bonds of kinship and reciprocity, now the group could mark and conceptualize itself, draw a line between the collective self and other human groups sharing and displaying different symbols, pulling disparate members together into tight cohesion. Once we became able to represent a qualitative difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ by the arbitrary symbol, we learned somehow to ‘cut’ the empathic connection that might otherwise, should we relate face-to-face, set mirror neurons in the emotional circuitry of our brains to resonating empathically; it seems that words and images can get in the way of empathy, as can numbers.
Language not only facilitated our immediate, group-maintaining actions, however, it gave people the ability to tell stories, maintain collective memories of past events and imagine possibilities that might or might not ever come to pass, inserting some distance between a human cultural realm and the temporal flux. Moreover, since the ability to communicate meaning through the use of specifically constructed words and signs did make humans stand out from all the other animals not showing such a talent, the move into the realm of symbol can be seen as cutting the first cleavage demarcating the human world from the world of the purely natural. Our growing use of symbols — vocal, gestural, or graphic — pried us away from the concreteness of the world of nature, with all its chaotic diversity, toward the relative stability and uniformity of the general concept. To transmit shared meaning, symbols that could cover minor differences by making things ‘the same’ were required. In developing our ability to communicate by means of this process of abstraction, the ability to quantify assemblages of relatively similar things began to take precedence over recognition of fine qualitative differences among particulars. Unruly nature could be ‘ordered,’ named and made to seem more uniform, and increasingly brought under the control of human beings, both physically and conceptually.
It’s been known for more than a century that most of our neural wiring for language is located within the left hemisphere, and Iain McGilchrist suggests “the metaphor of grasp” (2009, p. 112) as a way to link together language, the possible role of ‘mirrored’ hand gestures, and the left hemisphere’s use-orientation. It ‘is not an accident that we talk about ‘grasping’ what someone is saying,’ he maintains; rather:
The idea of ‘grasping’ implies seizing a thing for ourselves, for use, wresting it away from its context, holding it fast … it is the expression of our will, and it is the means to power. It is what enables us to ‘manipulate’ — literally to take a handful of whatever we need — and thereby to dominate the world around us. (McGilchrist, 2009, pp. 112–113)
‘Grasping’ certain parts and pieces of nature, naming and ‘ordering’ them and putting them to use, certainly gave our ancestors an edge over their many evolutionary cohorts; on the other hand, when only certain aspects of reality are plucked out of a very complex total field and made into ‘re-presentations,’ they become abstract concepts that can be quite misleading, particularly so if we fail to complete the circuit and place them back within the larger context from whence they came. Thus, “what is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate — things” (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 137) — a transformation in our perception of the world around us of which Nietzsche, for one, complains at length. Moreover, as McGilchrist continues, “manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division” — so, he maintains, if he had to pick “one governing principle” to characterize the left hemisphere, “it would be that of division.” In other words, McGilchrist (2009, p. 137) tells us, “it is the hemisphere of either/or” — the generator of what is referred to as dualistic thinking.
Psychologists and philosophers who study the processes underlying our current propensity for waging war among our human groupings often point to an extreme form of dividing up the world, called dualistic thinking, as providing its necessary conceptual framework. In Faces of the Enemy, psychologist Sam Keen (1986, p. 18) explains:
Around the basic antagonism between insiders and strangers the tribal mind forms an entire myth of conflict. The mythic mind, which still governs modern politics, is obsessively dualistic. It splits everything into polar opposites. The basic distinction between insiders and outsiders is parlayed into a paranoid ethic and metaphysic in which reality is seen as a morality play, a conflict between
The tribes versus The enemy
Good versus Evil
The sacred versus The profane
Such dualistic thinking is socially reinforced, producing a whereby, according to Keen, the group creates a ‘good’ self, with which it consciously identifies, by splitting off ‘the unacceptable parts of the self — its greed, cruelty, sadism, hostility, and what Jung called ‘the shadow’ (Keen, 1986, p. 19) — and unconsciously projecting these traits onto ‘the enemy’— whoever or whatever lies on the other side of that barrier its members’ abstracting and dichotomizing minds have constructed for themselves. As Keen vividly illustrates with examples of propaganda posters created by the different sides of various military conflicts, ‘the enemy’ is often depicted in nonhuman form, as a fearsome animal or some kind of disgusting vermin, all the better to put some distance between us and them and make the killing of them that much easier to do. This polarizing tendency of thought, taken to an extreme, can also impose a projected ‘deadness’ on the living other, providing a convenient justification not only for killing individual beings but for abstracting all vital qualities out of them, conceptually transforming human as well as nonhuman nature into uniform bits of lifeless matter and eventually into completely abstract monetary units — often then to be put to use, via our economic institutions, in escalating the ongoing war of us against them, in a self-reinforcing, feed-forward process.
At some time in their histories, all human societies must have taken that fateful step into shared cultural symbolism and language; however, not all proceeded along a path that led them into a ‘war against nature,’ certainly nothing so extreme as what’s going on now in a near-global assault. Recurrent themes in the stories told by Native Americans and many other land-based peoples told of the interrelatedness among lifeforms and the need for mutual respect and harmony; moral responsibilities extended to nonhuman life, and when life was taken, grateful acknowledgment was required. Humans were distinct, everywhere; but a further move along the trajectory, a separation of the human from the natural, seems to have been a cultural peculiarity that not all human societies enacted. In what became known as the ‘Western’ world, however — the culture which has given rise to the industrialism that has taken hold in most parts of the globe today — that further move was, and largely still is, much celebrated. It is the culture that originated in Western Europe that Iain McGilchrist sees as having first given expression to the increasing domination of left-hemisphere cognition, with its theme of division, separation, abstraction from context, and us-vs-them thinking, and some of the central myths and metaphors of that culture are still actively structuring the way many of us think today, even if they receive little conscious attention — issues that will be considered at some length later on in this chapter.
Writing some of the seminal texts to emerge from the culture of the ancient Greeks, Plato accorded more reality to an immaterial world of Ideas, perfect and eternal, than to the messy and changeable actuality of our embodied lives here on Earth. Aristotle, more appreciative of biology than Plato, nevertheless exalted humanity above the rest and pointed to our rationality, our recently evolved ability to abstract and separate in thought, as the feature that not only singled us out from the other animals but gave us moral priority. Nature was still alive, however, in the Greek society of more than two thousand years ago; Aristotle understood all living things to be animated with a soul that initiated movement, humans, animals and plants alike. But he conceived of our human minds or souls as divided into parts, of which our reason, or rationality, was supposed to govern and rein in the parts given to feelings and baser appetites, in parallel with our efforts to control an unruly world of nature that couldn’t always be counted on to deliver the harvest, initiating an internal as well as an external division that might well be conceived in terms of struggle if not an all-out war. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle became intertwined with Christian thought in medieval Europe, and, as historian Lynn White details in a famous essay (White, 1967), the latter, growing in influence at the same time that technology was developing, served to justify an increasingly violent relationship between human society and the natural systems of the land. According to White, the major thrust of the Christian religion, claiming both God and humanity to be transcendent of the created world — deepening the divide in western thought — urged the ‘chopping down of sacred groves’ as part of its assault on paganism, and thus explicitly endorsed our war against nature.
It took around 2,000 years from the time of Plato and Aristotle for a victory to be declared in this war. In the wake of the great scientific revolution that began with Nicolaus Copernicus’s shifting our worldview from a geocentric universe to a heliocentric solar system and culminated in Isaac Newton’s inscribing the laws of both celestial and terrestrial motion in precisely formulated mathematical terms, all traces of animism were finally swept out of our accepted metaphysical scheme. Living things were no longer to be seen as agents generating their own motion and directing their own lives; the apparently purposive actions of animals and plants came to be ‘reduced’ to the mindless movements of machinery. From the time of this scientific ‘enlightenment’ forward until, for many, the present day, we were instructed that what was ‘really real’ was only ‘atoms in the void,’ a pronouncement that led people to imagine the universe as being nothing but a collection of tiny, separate, solid, billiard-ball-like particles colliding with one another in the empty vastness of space- particles that could be further ‘reduced’ in our minds to pure mathematical description in terms of mass, velocity and direction. Mathematician Pierre-Simon LaPlace summed up the enormous change in worldview that resulted from this new — the universe as a machine — in his depiction of a fantasy figure that came to be known as ‘LaPlace’s demon,’ an intellect that, given the positions of all the particles and the magnitude of all the forces acting on them at any one instant of time, could calculate all past and future configurations of the universe, thus removing even human agency from what was now a completely deterministic piece of clockwork.
Exactly how our human lives and our sense of free will could be reconciled with this imaginative cosmology was never quite resolved, but mechanistic science worked beautifully for allowing us to describe, predict, and thus control the movements of macroscopic physical objects, and if the complexities of living organisms lay beyond its grasp, it was not from lack of trying to put them ‘on the rack,’ as Francis Bacon is said to have urged, to lay bare the ‘mechanisms’ undergirding life itself. The desire for control over the other while alive and agentive has now turned into pretending that the other has been killed, is dead, has become machinelike and therefore is completely in the power of whatever intellect has access to nature’s laws. Rene Descartes made the separation between one part of us, our ‘rational’ minds, and the rest of nature complete, inscribing in what are still considered the foundational texts of modern philosophy a dualistic metaphysics that remains deeply embedded in our psyches today: all of nature is a vast, mindless machine, including our own bodies, while we are of a different sort altogether, detachable minds or souls that are eternal, suitable to inhabit Plato’s abstract realm of perfection and immutability, and free to manipulate the mechanistic sphere without repercussion, since we do so from our existential positioning safely outside the realm of this ‘nature.’
Iain McGilchrist has interpreted the major milestones in the evolution of Western European culture, from Plato’s exaltation of a realm of abstraction to Descartes’ severing of our minds from our bodies, through the Industrial Revolution’s assault on nature and finally to our forlorn detachment in Postmodernity, as evidence for an increasing left-hemisphere dominance in the approach to the world being taken by all who have come under its influence, which in this dawn of the Anthropocene epoch seems to extend to almost everybody — a growing species-wide hemispheric imbalance that may be leading us all toward a literal, not simply metaphorical, ‘death of nature.’
The disappearance of all notion of souls, spirits or vital forces in the natural world, or indeed of there being any difference at all between the living and the nonliving, was the apparent result of this great revolution in western thought that spanned the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, a consequence that Carolyn Merchant has called ‘The Death of Nature’ (Merchant, 1980). Westerners were thereby freed from any moral reservations they might have had about seizing hold of other living creatures, and eventually entire ecosystems, and twisting them to serve particular exploitative human purposes; if there was nothing with will or agency there in the first place, nothing but mindless clockwork, to what could we possibly owe any measure of ethical respect? The Cartesian fantasy of ‘our’ splendid isolation — or perhaps, rather, that of a certain part of us, our rational minds or souls, as conceived by our increasingly dominant left hemispheres, increasingly detached from right-hemisphere input — coupled with a manipulative approach to the natural world justifying itself on the basis of what is now a very out-of-date physics, appears to be the foundation of what is given the appellation ‘our war against nature’ today, an orientation that serves to sanction an increasingly violent assault on nonhuman life, and on an important but generally unacknowledged part of our own human lives as well. If nature were really dead, of course, it would make no sense to speak of waging such a war — the ‘enemy’ would already have been killed and conquered; but then again, with nature dead, there wouldn’t be any of ‘us’ alive to wage such a war in the first place. There is a deep flaw in the logic underlying this anti-nature, anti-self stance, one that will return us to the question with which this chapter started: who are ‘we,’ such that ‘we’ can be proud to embrace as its own and carry out a ‘war against nature,’ and is this ‘who’ we choose to be?
If we are to have any hope of calling off our war against nature, it will be helpful to examine, through several different academic lenses, the ways in which we create and perpetuate our present ‘social reality,’ which, broadly understood, is what generates and structures all of our human activities on the planet, and the current configuration of which must be at the root of why we are continuing to wage this war.
11.6.1 Our Ability to Abstract and Symbolize Enables Us to Construct the Linguistic Core of Our ‘Social Reality’
Becoming increasingly aware of how our minds operate allows us to become reflexive, to ‘catch ourselves in the act’ of shaping the way we think, and this move opens us up to yet another step, actively changing not only how we think but what we do. Most of what we do in the world, however, we do working together as social animals, and analytic philosopher John Searle focuses attention on our social nature in his account of how we humans ‘construct culture out of nature,’ in a sense taking up where van Schaik’s account leaves off. Searle’s account deals largely with current practices specific to western, industrial cultures, but presumably the basic moves he describes would be species-wide. His analysis is also almost entirely focused on the linguistic and therefore predominantly left-hemisphere process whereby we build up our symbol-world. Although he doesn’t speak of this,the fact that he attempts to describe the process itself and situate it within the larger context of our biological propensities attests to his own ability to employ some right-hemisphere skills as well.
In The Construction of Social Reality, Searle (1995) tells us that he was struck early on by what he calls ‘the metaphysical burden’ of the world we live in, the fact that, in addition to those parts of our reality that exist independently of us, the things that are studied by the natural sciences, there are also a large number of things that do not exist other than by virtue of the fact that we, as human subjects, believe in them — things like money, governments, property, marriages and the like. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that investigates existence, so Searle terms the former, independently existing things, , and the latter, those things that exist only by human agreement, . As he explains, these latter ‘things’ come into existence just as the words of our language come into existence, by our doing something we humans are very, very good at: collectively agreeing to give certain sounds, marks and objects symbolic meanings so that we can use them to convey information and coordinate our human activities. Searle defends a correspondence theory of truth, the notion that a ‘true’ statement describes fairly accurately how things are in the world, i.e. the way it re-presents the world corresponds to the way the world actually is. He is quite clear about the difference between what is ontologically subjective — our human belief systems, from our re-presentations of concrete things to increasingly abstracted concepts that have no referent in the actual world — and that which is ontologically objective — the things that actually do exist in the world, independently of whether we ‘believe in them’ or not.
To explain how the process of symbolization works to allow us to construct our ‘social reality,’ Searle asks us to imagine a stone wall built by an early band of humans to keep others out of their territory. At first, the wall is a physical barrier; over time, it crumbles into a line of stones that one could easily step across, but it continues to exclude members of other groupings because it has attained symbolic significance as a boundary marker in the minds of all the people of the region, reminding outsiders to the original grouping that the area has been cordoned off, excluding them–it could perhaps be said to signify early ‘ownership’ and to demarcate an aspect of group identity as well. When entire groupings of humans agree, explicitly or implicitly, to behave as if particular things are invested with a certain symbolic meaning or status, then those things can function as if they actually had certain physical properties, even if there’s nothing correspondingly physical about them. Since it is not just any one individual’s thought or desire that brings those symbolic properties into being, but rather the whole human community’s shared belief — what Searle calls their — the ‘barrier’ presented by the symbolic line of stones will be experienced as something substantial insofar as it is outside of any one person’s ability to alter. Nevertheless, its existence is utterly dependent upon the continued belief of the larger group, and it would cease to exist when the group died out, or in the moment they decided to change their minds and drop it — it remains something entirely ontologically subjective. Searle provides a formula to represent the way this process of works in general terms. He claims our social institutions are created through many iterations of ‘constitutive rules’ that take the linguistic form of ‘X counts as Y in context C’. A group invests an object, X — the line of stones in the example above — with a symbolic meaning, Y — being a boundary marker — in a particular context, C — demarcating the limits of the homeland. As long as most everyone in the larger community behaves in a way that follows the ‘rule,’ recognizing the attachment of symbolic status Y to object X, even if they don’t think consciously about it, X ‘is’ that Y for them.
Our notion of value has become abstracted from natural contexts through the action of such a process, becoming increasingly expressed in numerical units with less and less connection to things in the real world. Money, as Searle explains, has evolved from ontologically objective commodity money like gold or silver, which most people found desirable in itself, for ornamentation if not for utility, subjected to repeated agreements of the declaration ‘X counts as Y in context C’ to become contract money in the form of promissory notes exchangeable for specified amounts of bullion, and finally fiat money, paper currency or electronic traces in computer banks, that governments have declared ‘by fiat’ to ‘count as’ a certain amount of value — a purely linguistic/symbolic entity. Our conceptions of wealth, as positive value, or of debt, as negative value, are similarly socially constructed. Nevertheless, their hold on us is remarkably strong; anthropologist David Graeber traces it back to our sense of moral obligation, as beings who necessarily depend upon social cooperation, which includes keeping our agreements and fulfilling our responsibilities, in order to sustain our societies (Graeber, 2011).
Searle’s theory is developed largely in terms of a very sophisticated linguistic philosophy that focuses on the logical structure of our social institutions, emphasizing abstraction and rule-following. He is forced to develop a concept of ‘the background’ in order to account for the fact that no conscious (or, he claims, even ‘unconscious’) rule-following or other abstract thinking seems to be involved in the day-to-day participation of most people in economic or other social institutions. This background includes a set of dispositions that we ‘evolve’ as we grow up within society and receive positive or negative social feedback for our actions — dispositions toward ways of thinking and acting that will presumably thereby be ‘sensitive to the rule structure’ underlying established institutions even if it is never brought to our conscious attention (Searle, 1995, pp. 144–145). In a more recent work, however, Searle reaffirms his theory’s dependence on abstract logic with the claim that “all human social institutions are brought into existence and continue in their existence by a single logico-linguistic operation that can be applied over and over again.” Searle (2010, p. 62), outlining the legal process of creating a corporation through a succession of verbal declarations or ‘speech acts.’ Later, however, he asks — since there is nothing ‘there’ to an institution before its linguistic creation, “and since its creation is really just words, words, words” — given that this is how all ‘facts’ regarding the existence of our social institutions come about — “how do we get away with it?” His short answer — which must be rooted in the processes he lumps together under the background — is that ‘we’ get away with constructing and maintaining our institutions, even some that perpetuate highly unjust social arrangements, “to the extent that we can get other people to accept it.” A deeper question, of course, is why people do accept the current structure of our social reality, and in answering this question Searle points to a prominent feature of most cases, ”people do not typically understand what is going on.” Most people do not understand that things like money, or private property, or corporations, are human creations; rather, “they tend to think of them as part of the natural order of things, to be taken for granted in the same way that they take for granted the weather or the force of gravity” (Searle, 2010, pp. 106-107). Most people simply grow up within a culture and absorb the ability to live in accord with all of its various symbolic meanings, acquiring a set of ‘background’ capacities without ever thinking about how they originated. In other words, they fail to see that a large part of the ‘world’ that they take for granted is socially constructed, maintained in its particular form simply by collective human agreement — and therefore open to re-construction if only enough of us could come to realize its true ontological status, and our own capacity to make alterations when and where we determine that they are necessary — this, however, is not something discussed to any extent by Searle.
Searle’s analysis of the logical structure of our social institutions can be helpful if we are to make an effort to bring about some deliberate, fundamental changes in their structure, but it is obviously not the whole picture of how our ‘social reality’ comes about, as he admits. His explanation of how the ‘ontologically subjective’ comes into being is what is most relevant to our war against nature, since it provides necessary insight into how we might eventually end it — if our creations foster this war, we can re-create or un-create them. To fill out our understanding of ‘why we do what we do’ — and what we don’t do, including get to the root of major problems — we must look beyond the ‘single logico-linguistic operation’ postulated by Searle, and draw insights from the fields of social psychology and what Eviatar Zerubavel terms ‘cognitive sociology.’ Cognitive sociology recognizes ‘an intersubjective social world’ that lies in between the personal, inner ‘subjective’ world and the manifest, ‘objective’ natural world, a world of ‘shared mindscapes’ that are neither naturally nor logically inevitable but are rather often ‘utterly conventional’ (Zerubavel, 1997, p. 9), meaning that they’re largely arbitrary, established simply because groups of people come to adopt, for whatever reason, certain shared ways of thinking and acting.
Zerubavel recognizes, as does Searle, the role played by social feedback — often in the form of “tacit pressure which we rarely even notice unless we try to resist it.” In what he calls “the process of cognitive socialization,” whereby we “learn to see the world through the mental lenses of particular thought communities,” subtle social signals teach us things like what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what sorts of behavior to expect, and how to “reason in a socially appropriate manner” (Zerubavel, 1997, pp. 13–15). He points to the Solomon Asch experiment in the social psychology of conformity — in a test of comparative line lengths, many subjects are so strongly influenced by the expressed beliefs of others that they deny the evidence of their own eyes — as a small-scale example of what he terms ‘social optics.’ It can also be seen as an illustration of the result of following ‘the coherence theory of truth,’ holding that what makes a statement ‘true’ is merely the fact that it coheres with the beliefs and statements of most of the other members of the group, not whether it corresponds with reality (a person adhering to this theory of truth can dispense with the notion of ‘reality’ altogether). He notes, in agreement with Searle’s defense of the existence of a real world independent of our representations of it, that, while people from different human cultures can have different pictures of how the world is configured, this kind of ‘optical’ pluralism or ‘perspectivism’ does not preclude the existence of an ‘objective reality’. What it does is “tie the validity of the different ‘views’ of that reality to particular standpoints” (Zerubavel, 1997, p. 30), particular ways that groups may be situated within the larger reality, in order to ‘see’ it that way.
Our ways of ‘dividing up’ the world are largely shared within our thought communities and are therefore social- this includes the tendency to draw sharp, dualistic divides between certain kinds of things (see Section 184.108.40.206), which is especially pronounced in some cultures. That this tendency toward dualism is a cultural construction rather than a reflection of an ontological chasm within nature can be illustrated by “the fact that many young children are totally oblivious to the conventional distinction between humans and all other living creatures,” an observation which “makes it quite clear that such a distinction is neither natural nor logical” (Zerubavel, 1997, p. 47). Like Searle, Zerubavel draws attention to the “tendency to mistake intersubjectivity for objectivity,” forgetting the conventional nature of our symbols and thereby falling victim to what we will call, later on in this chapter, the , and he emphasizes the importance of the ‘cognitive flexibility’ that results from maintaining awareness of our ability to consciously alter the meaning of our symbols, contrasting with the rigidity thought that results from ‘reifying’ our shared symbols, confusing them with objectively real things in the world (Zerubavel, 1997, pp. 78-80). People’s willingness to die ‘in order to protect their national flag’ is an example of such reification, he explains, since “we sometimes confuse totemic representations of collectivities with those collectivities themselves.”
Kari Marie Norgaard draws on Zerubavel’s work in analyzing the way the residents of a small rural community in Norway ‘don’t do’ something — they don’t generally acknowledge the very obvious effects of climate change on their local landscape, or its implications, and thus they don’t take any actions to address it. Bringing in issues of emotion, ideology, and power that are omnipresent contributors to the ‘background’ of which Searle speaks, Norgaard describes what she terms the social organization of denial:
Everyday reality is structured through social, political, and economic institutions and produced through ordinary actions and practices, in particular following (and thereby reproducing) the interconnected cultural norms of what to pay attention to, feel, and talk about. Just as social norms of attention, conversation, and emotion create the sense of what is real, they also work to produce the sense of what is not real, what is excluded from the immediate experience of normal reality. (Norgaard, 2011a, p. 132)
Zerubavel uses the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes to illustrate the social nature of the way a distortion in our collective perception of reality can be propagated: surrounding the emperor’s nakedness was a ‘conspiracy of silence’, “whereby a group of people tacitly agree to outwardly ignore something of which they are all personally aware.” This kind of collective denial is not just a failure to notice something but rather “entails a deliberate effort to refrain from” noticing things “that actually beg for attention” (Zerubavel, 2006, p. 9) — things so big and conspicuous that they often become referred to as the metaphorical ‘elephant in the room.’ In studying examples of collective denial as it occurs in a variety of contexts, he has observed that “the pressure toward silence gains momentum” in proportion to the number of people involved in maintaining it, and increases the longer the denial is maintained (Zerubavel, 2006, p. 15). The wider the circle of conspirators, the more powerful the group pressure not to violate “a collectively sacred social taboo” — “thereby evoking a heightened sense of fear” should one dare to break the silence (Zerubavel, 2006, pp. 56-57). Zerubavel quotes Paul Simon in noting that such silence ‘like a cancer grows’ — “which is indeed how an entire society may come to collectively deny its leaders’ incompetence, glaring atrocities, and impending environmental disasters” (Zerubavel, 2006, p. 58).
Our war against nature is starting to boomerang back upon us by unleashing a variety of ‘impending environmental disasters,’ one of which is climate change. Norgaard’s analysis will be valuable in helping us to understand what we’re dealing with here — not only why we continue doing what we’re doing when we know it worsens the problem but why we seem to be so powerless to even address it. Norgaard lived in Norway growing up and speaks fluent Norwegian. She returned there in 2000 “with a concern about global warming and an intention to conduct research on how the environmentally progressive Norwegians made sense of it” (Norgaard ,2011a, p. xviii). What she found, in the community she visited — where she knew people were quite knowledgeable, abstractly, about global warming — was that, despite one of the warmest winters on record, resulting in an “unprecedented” need for artificial snow and loss of the ice fishing season because the lake failed to freeze, everyday life “went on as though it didn’t exist”; people listened to news coverage of unusual weather, and of climate talks going on internationally, but then they “just tuned in to American sitcoms.” As far as she could tell, they did not spend much time thinking about how global warming was impacting their own community, and rarely brought it up in conversation; “they did not integrate this knowledge into everyday life” (Norgaard, 2011a, p. 4).
To her outsider’s eyes, Norgaard could detect a well-coordinated if not consciously arranged dance around an ‘elephant in the room,’ and she brought the thinking of a number of other academics focusing on such phenomena to bear on what she saw. Socially enforced ‘norms of attention’ can rope off large realms of reality from people’s perception, thus constituting ‘a particularly insidious form of social control.’ This sort of attentional norm-setting is an example of Steven Lukes’ ‘third dimension of power,’ she maintains, less visible than the first and second dimensions — ’outright coercion and the ability to set the public agenda’ — but perhaps even more dangerous because of its ability to, as Lukesputs it, shape people’s “perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable” — an analysis that agrees with and further fills out the answer to Searle’s query, ‘How do we get away with it’?
Looking more deeply into the community’s failure to take or even envision any climate-change-countering actions, Norgaard found that a desire to avoid unpleasant emotions, including the unpleasant sensation of cognitive dissonance, was likely to be operative not only on the level of individual psychology but also at the social level. Cognitive dissonance is ‘a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions’ — beliefs, attitudes, worldviews — ‘that are psychologically inconsistent’ (Tavris & Aronson, 2007, p. 13), and it can cause a great deal of discomfort, so people generally do whatever they can to reduce it, usually by trying to deny one or the other of the conflicting cognitions. For example, thinking about all the bad effects on one’s health while continuing to smoke cigarettes creates dissonance, so minimizing the health risk by emphasizing smoking’s prevention of weight gain might be one way of reducing it. Belying their image as “a simple, nature-loving people who are concerned with equality and human rights,” Norwegians are now among the larger per capita contributors to global warming, the country having tripled its oil and gas production over the decade preceding her study to become the second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia (Norgaard, 2011a, p. 88), permitting them to enjoy quite a high standard of living, and yet, by the time of Norgaard’s study, they had done “not so much” to meet their emissions reduction goals despite their awareness of the consequences of climate change for less fortunate nations — a thought that must be suppressed because of its threat to personal and cultural values. According to Norgaard, members of the community were able to maintain their distance from the issue of global warming “via a cultural toolkit of emotion management techniques” and the employment of “social narratives” of national identity (Norgaard, 2011a, pp. 213-214); they tended to hold fast to old traditions, maintaining a sense of the past within the present, while refraining from thinking too much about the future, telling and retelling stories of ‘Mythic Norway,’ displaying images of an unspoiled land and emphasizing the small size of the country in relation to other greenhouse gas emitters — all serving to minimize their responsibility in contributing to the global problem and keeping the dissonance at bay.
Though not the focus of her study, Norgaard also uncovered efforts to avoid “guilt, fear and helplessness” through similar maneuvers in the United States, where she found the thought of climate change to be just so much “background noise.” One of her young American interviewees even posed the crux of her angst as follows: “How many of us can really imagine that the war against nature will really be over and we will come out alive in a world where continuing ecological destruction is not the order of the day?” (Norgaard ,2011a, p. 197, emphasis added). Moreover, Norgaard worries that, “with the dynamics of global capitalism in which gaps between rich and poor increase,” the tendency toward denial of mounting ecological and social problems will likely increase for those with the economic ability “to build physical, mental, and cultural walls around our daily lives,” and she muses as to whether this kind of denial may be “a new psychological predicament for privileged people” (Norgaard, 2011b, p. 410).
Keeping unpleasant emotions at a distance by enabling collective denial of a problem does not contribute to its solution, however — it prevents it. As Zerubavel observes, “conspiracies of silence prevent us from confronting, and consequently solving, our problems.” He explains:
it is precisely the effort to collectively deny their ubiquitous presence that makes ‘elephants’ so big. As soon as we acknowledge it they almost magically begin to shrink. And only then, when we no longer collude to ignore it, can we get the proverbial elephant out of the room. (Zerubavel, 2006, p. 87)
The most effective way of dealing with cognitive dissonance is to confront the problem head-on and start taking the steps that are needed to solve it — which are often well known, but for some reason or other need to be avoided, often in order to maintain a position of privilege, to keep up with others’ expectations, or out of fear of what significant change to our human status quo might bring. The status of nature is deteriorating all the time now as a result of our collective human actions, however, so this elephant is getting harder and harder to ignore — and besides, won’t we all feel a great relief when we can stop expending so much energy pretending it isn’t there?
11.6.3 Acting to Reverse Course: Overcoming Denial, Correcting Our Metaphors, Righting the Ontological Reversal, Rebalancing Our Cognition
Along with many others, Norgaard claims that “climate change is arguably the single most significant environmental issue of our time” (Norgaard, 2011b, p. 399. I would argue the point, insofar as the cumulative impacts of our ‘war against nature’ include but far exceed climate change, which is just the most dramatic and rapidly progressing result of this misguided ‘war.’ Our direct assault on nonhuman life and the natural landscape has not let up even in the face of an accelerating extinction event that may be precipitating ecological collapse around the globe, and changes in planetary chemistry have already gone well beyond their consequences simply for the planet’s climate. In examining the way the residents of a Norwegian community were ‘paralyzed’ (Norgaard, 2011a, p. 208) in the face of obvious, locally significant climate change, however, Norgaard has uncovered some of the psychological and social processes that are currently operative to ‘keep everything the same’ pretty much everywhere, maintaining our life-threatening trajectory even as scientists document its disastrous effects in minute detail. The purpose of doing such a study, presumably, was, at the very least, to help us figure out how to release the ‘paralysis’ and get some large-scale movement going in a different direction, just as the aim of this chapter is not only to make its readers more aware of some of the whys and hows of our ‘war against nature’ but also to raise the possibility of ending the war, by seeking alternatives to the things that stoke its furnaces now, of which one is denial itself.
Just as there are national and other group narratives that play and replay to distract from visible contradictions in Norgaard’s Norwegian community, there are images, narratives and metaphors that explain and justify this war deeply embedded within our globalizing culture, blocking our ability to see nonhuman nature in any other way than as rightfully the spoils of the conquering species, the supposed ‘winners’ of this war. Many of these depictions have been found to be quite misleading in light of contemporary science, but since much of their effect occurs below the level of consciousness, and their implications are continually reinforced socially, it can be quite difficult to correct them in people’s minds. As it becomes more and more necessary to speak about what’s happening, however, discussing the errors and confusions that these images, narratives and metaphors contribute to our ‘social optics’ should also become easier to do, and once we are made fully conscious of them, they are likely to lose much of their power.
By considering the extent to which our metaphors structure our thinking, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson lay some groundwork for a radical revisioning of western thought in their impressive tome Philosophy in the Flesh. On the basis of recent discoveries in cognitive science, they maintain that our minds are not separate from but are rather a result of our embodiment, highly structured by the organization of our perceptual and motor systems, and that our concepts are largely metaphorical, based on relationships we discover in the real world as we explore it with our bodies and then imaginatively project into logical entailments among our thoughts. The common notion of causality, for example, usually envisioned as the application of an outside force to effect a change in the properties of an object, is the likely result of projecting our human experience of forcibly imparting momentum to a billiard ball, made general and presumably universal through our capacity for abstraction. They claim that the vast majority of our thinking processes are below the level of our conscious awareness, making up what they call the ‘cognitive unconscious,’ but they maintain that through empirical study we can become more aware of the way these processes structure our thinking, and as we do so we can learn, to some extent, how to alter, update, or reprioritize the metaphors we import into our thought (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 537).
And there is a powerful metaphor at the heart of Descartes’ metaphysics that we desperately need to correct, because it still seems to be operative within the culture that is enveloping the globe: it conveys the notion of a disembodied reason — pure ‘mind,’ supposedly inherent only in us human beings — confronting something of a completely different order, a mindless mechanism, lacking any purposiveness within — pure ‘matter’ — that may be endlessly manipulated, by us humans, from without. Physics and biology have both come a long way since the ideas of Bacon, Descartes and Newton; physicists have discovered that atoms aren’t like billiard balls at all, for example, and biologists know that organisms must be conceived as living systems, quite different from mindless machines.  A growing number of scientists and philosophers, therefore, have turned their attention to correcting this mistaken conception. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that ‘reason’ cannot be separated from body and emotion, at least not without seriously impairing the judgment of patients who have damage to the emotional circuitry in their brains. In Descartes’ Error, Damasio points out, not only that it was a mistake to take “clockwork mechanics as a model for life processes,” but that Descartes had his metaphysics exactly backwards in presuming that the mind was a “thinking thing” separate from the body – instead of “I think, therefore I am,” conscious thought arose somewhere during the process of biological evolution — ”in the beginning it was being, and only later was it thinking” (Damasio, 1994, p. 248). What exactly we mean by ‘consciousness’ may be endlessly debated; however, in the words of Evan Thompson, “a purely external or outside view of structure and function is inadequate for life,” since “a living being is not sheer exteriority.” Instead, as noted earlier, embodying an inwardness, an “immanent purposiveness” (Thompson, 2007, p. 225) within itself. A better image for the living organism, human or nonhuman, then — as replacement for the Cartesian wind-up toy or the heap of colliding billiard-ball atoms — would be a dynamic system that is both autopoietic — self-organizing — and cognitive — intelligently related to its environment; in other words, a being for which a ‘self’ and a ‘world’ emerge simultaneously, as it interacts with its environment in the process of staying alive (Thompson, 2007, p.158). Seizing hold of our metaphors, myths, and ‘imaginative visions’ and correcting some of them in light of contemporary science was also a central concern of the late philosopher Mary Midgley. In The Myths We Live By she adds her voice in criticism of the Cartesian vision, asserting just how much “we profoundly need to get rid of something”–the notion of the valuelessness, if not the complete lifelessness, of the natural world that was ushered in by the mechanistic, reductionistic science of three to four centuries ago (Midgley, 2004, p. 250). The time has come to purge these dangerously misleading metaphors from our minds.
If a new image is needed to capture our more sophisticated understanding of the individual living being, however, there is also a pressing need for us to update the way we picture the larger system that keeps us alive. It seems there is a powerful image, taken from neoclassical — which now dominates ‘mainstream’— economics, that is responsible for structuring much of our contemporary thought. It is an image of a circular flow of money and commodities, regulated by a perfectly competitive market, and operating as a kind of perpetual-motion machine propelled by the maximization of utility and profit — whatever does not have a place in the incessant cycling is considered an inconsequential ‘externality’ and disregarded. While the mechanistic mindset of the left hemisphere is implicit in this conceptualization, it is the wholly abstract realm of our words and symbols — including that most powerful of all our symbols, money — that is the left hemisphere’s proudest achievement, and it is the possibility of conceptually taking flight into that abstract economic realm that reinforces the Cartesian illusion that we can escape the constraints of the real world altogether.
Searle’s analysis offers a helpful vocabulary for describing what is happening here: we have effected an ontological reversal in our minds. Many people do not grasp the crucial distinction between the ontologically subjective and the ontologically objective — they don’t get the difference, nor the difference it makes. In essence, they are falling victim to what Alfred North Whitehead identified as ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,’ mistaking the abstract for the concrete, taking the concept itself for the underlying reality from which it is derived. Previous generations of humans must have grasped the fundamental ontological order of things — aware of the reality of the natural world, and our dependency upon it, even if they conceived of themselves as engaged in a ‘battle’ to wrest grain from the soil or fish from the sea. But a large number of people now to seem to share in a mindset that takes such ontologically subjective ‘objects’ as ‘the economy,’ or the corporation, or the nation-state, or just ‘money’ itself, to be somehow more existentially substantial than the living organisms making up the biosphere. Unless they contribute to the circulation of money in some way, they are assumed to be simply ‘externalities’ that we can get by without. To the vast majority of people living in industrialized societies, therefore, ‘the economy’ is of far more concern than the ecology–in contrast to land-based peoples, of course, for whom the two are necessarily inseparable. Most Westerners–and now a growing number of people on the planet as a result of economic and cultural globalization–having accepted the Cartesian metaphysics ‘unconsciously’ at the level of metaphor, seem to conceive of themselves as separate from nature and able to live independently of it, in the Platonic realm of our symbols. They are taking the sphere of our collectively accepted and mutually reinforced beliefs and expectations–the world of our social construction, centered on an image of money and goods revolving in an endlessly turning circle, detached from any larger context–as being more ‘real’ than our actual planetary reality. We need to learn to ‘see through’ the money game to what’s really happening on the ground, and do the right thing there.
Lakoff and Johnson pick up where the analyses of Searle and McGilchrist leave off, pointing out what’s wrong with the kind of thinking inculcated by mainstream economics, which they term ‘the theory of rational action’. ‘Rationality’ itself is construed in terms of translating whatever is deemed desirable or valuable into numbers–performing the ultimate abstraction by converting all quality into sheer quantity, in other words–and then reasoning on the basis of the metaphor ‘well-being is wealth’ so as to ‘maximize’ these empty placeholders. The utilitarian ethicists of the 19th century, while similarly fascinated with mathematics, at least construed well-being in units of pleasure or happiness, but we 21st century humans of industrial culture now think almost solely in units of currency. Moreover, what are taken to be the rational actors in the current scheme of things are often themselves ontologically subjective, socially constructed superorganismic entities like corporations and nation-states, which are conceived as being in competition with one another in a race to garner the largest sum of such symbolic wealth. From a perspective that willingly accepts all the layers of projected symbolic status required to divide our social reality up in this way, such an approach may seem rational. “From an ecological and cultural perspective,” however, Lakoff and Johnson observe, “it is profoundly irrational, that is, destructive of other vital forms of well-being–the long-term well-being of the natural world, of indigenous forms of cultural life, and of values crucial to the human spirit” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 532).
A contrasting type of rationality is what ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood has described as . It “includes that higher-order form of critical, prudential, self-critical reason which scrutinizes the match or fit between an agent’s choices, actions and effects and that agent’s overall desires, interests and objectives as they require certain ecological conditions for their fulfillment” (Plumwood, 2002: 68, emphasis added). And in the interests of promoting such an ecological rationality, I propose substituting, at the center of our thought, instead of the contextless, self-enclosed circular flow of abstractions, the following image invoked by Aldo Leopold. “Land,” he tells us, “is not merely soil.” Rather:
it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life. (Leopold, 1949, p. 252)
This ‘fountain of energy’ powering all life, surging upward to circulate throughout the ‘biotic pyramid,’ rising within trophic levels from soil to plant to grazer to predator (see Section 11.3.4), is not something tangible that can be ‘seen’ directly in any landscape, of course. To that extent, the image is like the circular ‘engine’ of economics, a representation, an abstract conceptualization — but it is a conceptualization of something real. The relationships that are described scientifically, though represented abstractly in terms of producers and consumers, trophic levels and food webs, are not arbitrary social constructions; they can be discovered in the structure of ecosystems as different as rainforests and deserts and coral reefs, ecosystems that are themselves, in Searle’s terminology, ontologically objective. We should learn to respect both the systems and the structure, since how well we can mesh our lives with these will ultimately determine how we will sustain our lives in the years ahead.
The fixation of our collective attention upon the abstract symbols of economics serves to conceal from conscious awareness the destruction we are wreaking on the natural world, just as metaphysically ‘reducing’ nonhuman organisms to machines or collections of billiard-ball atoms conceals their aliveness and intrinsic value as centers of self-organizing agency. The very language that we use when speaking of the natural world — so often cast in terms of resources or as the provider of ‘ecosystem services’ just for us–further blocks our ability to see living beings and their ecosystemic patterns of interaction as they are in and of themselves. It is a maneuver that reduces the dissonance we feel if we admit to ourselves the degree of nonhuman distress and suffering our actions are creating, a way to achieve and maintain denial. Eileen Crist focuses attention on our use of the term resources, calling it “a corrupt concept which continues to masquerade as merely a descriptive word,” a concept that “reconfigures the natural world in terms of how it is usable, thereby entirely bypassing … nature’s intrinsic standing, both as being and as value” (Crist, 2014, p. 7). Continual linguistic employment of this term could be considered another example of the “social organization of denial,” insofar as the awareness and agency of nonhuman organisms are obscured or erased by collective collusion, and its influence is pervasive. As Crist observes, “the transfiguration of the natural world into resources has come to shape human thought and action at such an encompassing level that people largely perceive the natural world through this single framework: of how it is usable and/or profitable” (Crist, 2014, p.7; emphasis added).
Crist’s observation serves to reconnect us with McGilchrist’s detection of the role of the left hemisphere in our escalating collective environmental destructiveness, since in his view its fundamental attitude is a use-orientation toward whatever is in front of us. As our technologies of brain imaging become increasingly refined, it is likely that a much more nuanced picture of the relationship between our two cerebral hemispheres will emerge– a possibility that McGilchrist seems to acknowledge at the end of his heavily annotated book. He maintains, however, that what he has presented offers, at the very least, a model or metaphor for two “consistent ways of being” that can be tracked over the development of western culture, two ways of being that “are fundamentally opposed” (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 461). They are at least two identifiably quite different clusters of propensities that appear relevant to our dealings with nature, so we might want to take to heart his descriptions of the characteristic “ways of being” of each of our two hemispheres, and strive to rebalance the contributions of each, such that they come into play appropriately within their different realms. There are occasions when what he describes as the workings of the left hemisphere are precisely what we need — when we’re doing scientific work, or analyzing an argument, for example — but we must not allow the talents of our right hemisphere to atrophy, or be overshadowed by their opposites. McGilchrist claims that the right hemisphere has “primacy” over the left, since, being open to the initial presencing of what’s around us, it “starts the process of bringing the world into being,” and is thus “more in touch with reality.” The left hemisphere, on the other hand, “is a useful department to send things to for processing, but the things only have meaning once again when returned to the right hemisphere” — where “the parts, once seen, are subsumed again in the whole” (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 195). If the proper sequence of mental processing is thus RH > LH > RH, as McGilchrist suggests, then it means that the outcomes of the ‘single logico-linguistic process’ of which Searle speaks — if this is indeed what generates the institutional structure of our social reality — must be reintegrated back into our understanding of the larger context, in all its concrete ecological reality, such that those outcomes which are further disruptive of the natural world will be rejected.
Moreover, as McGilchrist explains, one way — the way of the right hemisphere — is:
to allow things to be present to us in all their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and impermanence, and their interconnectedness, as part of a whole which is forever in flux. In this world, we, too, feel connected to what we experience, part of that whole, not confined in subjective isolation from a world that is viewed as objective. The other [— the way of the left hemisphere — is] to step outside the flow of experience and ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: to re-present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world and one another. This world is explicit, abstracted, compartmentalized, fragmented, static (though its bits can be re-set in motion, like a machine), essentially lifeless. From this world we feel detached, but in relation to it we are powerful.
… the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself. (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 93)
As the above passages suggest, an additional benefit of taking the right hemisphere approach is that it will enable us to become the humans who experience ourselves in relation to nature in a wholly different manner than one of coldly utilizing its resources. If McGilchrist is right, this will relieve the loneliness of ‘detachment’ that presently seems to haunt our global enterprise, and may even lead to experiencing the ‘awe’ with which some become infused in the presence of nature.
11.7 Becoming Reflexive: Rethinking ‘Who’ We Are, Breaking Free of a Constricting Paradigm, Ending the ‘War’
Congratulations — if you’ve read this far into the chapter, you already have insight into how we might begin to live more intelligently on our planet, and thus make all of our lives much more secure. You have achieved a degree of , the ability to see yourself, together with all of us in our global human society, engaged in the active process of constructing our social reality. You now realize we’ve got a lot more choices than we’re currently allowing ourselves to imagine! We are biological organisms, one result of a long process of life unfolding on this planet. We know we are NOT mechanistically determined to continue to behave in predictable patterns like the billiard balls in simplistic physics experiments, nor dissociated rational minds that are ‘locked into’ following chains of linear logic regardless of where they lead. We see that, as behaviorally flexible primates, we have many more degrees of freedom through which we may exercise moral agency over what we choose to do. Moreover, we realize that we can also choose who we are — we can become the humans who choose NOT to wage this war against nature any longer. Since it is largely our socially reinforced set of beliefs, expectations, mental imagery, and attitudinal orientation that keeps us on our current path, undercutting our own security in a ‘war’ that makes no sense, once we get past our denial we can strive consciously to undo some of the mental straightjacketing we have been inflicting on ourselves, along the lines discussed in the previous section. Even if we don’t succeed in stopping all the destruction that’s already been set in motion, if we can start being honest with ourselves about what went wrong, and why, and take a shot at fixing things — well, at least we will have tried.
In this chapter, we have examined, in a quick overview, some salient aspects of what is currently known about living nature, conceived as life flowing over space and time, and traced the likely path of how we humans came to be doing the kinds of things we are doing to nature now, many of which can be conceptualized as waging a ‘war’ against it. As close relatives of the chimpanzees (let’s not forget our equally close relationship with bonobos, however), it is likely that we all inherited a dualizing tendency arising out of the need of a social animal to defend its ‘own’ group by sharply differentiating it from all ‘others.’ Moreover, we do possess characteristics that make us different from other animals, one being our exceptional facility with symbolization, a difference that has probably always been recognized in human cultures around the world. An orientation that seems to have developed especially strongly within cultures affected by Western thought, however, is one that conceives of us humans being not only distinctive but metaphysically separate from and superior to the rest of the living world, a dualistic opposite to what is often conceived as a dead, lifeless backdrop of ‘resources’ expressly for our use or a biological machine having no other purpose beyond supplying us with ‘services.’ This overall orientation — the engagement of attention in exploitation of a backgrounded ‘other’ — can be discovered at work within the intraspecific human relationships of colonization, racism and other group-on-group oppression, but it has been flourishing with little or no widely recognized critique as yet when turned against nonhuman beings and nature more generally. The roots of this orientation apparently trace to which cognitive connections happen to be dominant in our brains, within neural networks that may have considerable potential for flexibility. Whatever its neuropsychological underpinnings, however, this way of framing the world has found resonance with quite explicit philosophical positions and is constantly reinforced by ubiquitous misleading metaphors that need to be updated. Our backgrounding of the ‘other’ in order to enjoy the privileged position of dominance is often a maneuver about which we prefer to remain in denial, so perhaps, it’s time to name this attitude explicitly; it’s known as anthropocentrism, a constricting paradigm asserting, of just about everything, ‘it’s all about us,’ a narrowness of vision that has become a shackle on our thinking.
In an essay featured in the journal Science during the closing weeks of 2018, a time during which many of us were still absorbing the shocking news concerning the planet’s plummeting biodiversity, Eileen Crist targeted ‘a pervasive worldview’ that legitimizes and sustains ‘the trends of more’ — more people, more consumption, more concrete — that are driving our assault on nature. Human supremacy–’the belief system of superiority and entitlement’–is manifested in such assumptions as ‘the human is invested with powers of life and death over all other beings and with the prerogative to control and manage all geographical space’; it is “the underlying big story that normalizes the trends of more, and the consequent displacements and exterminations of nonhumans — as well as of humans who oppose that worldview” (Crist, 2018, p. 1242). Who is it that is fighting our war against nature? Whatever its combination of contributory factors, the war is fought under the banner of this sort of anthropocentric self-glorification, or from within its shadow, the part of us that would prefer to stay in denial about what we’re doing and why it might matter. Crist calls on us to ‘reimagine the human,’ in such a way that we no longer identify ‘human greatness’ with the domination of nonhumans, individually or within ecosystems. We have it within us to make the ‘rational response’ to this ‘present-day ecological emergency’ (Crist, 2018) — it’s clearly a matter of “scaling down and pulling back” (Crist, 2018, p. 1243) — and it is also the ethical response, evoked as we begin to more fully apprehend life on Earth.
As Ben Mylius has pointed out, the anthropocentric paradigm seriously constrains our ability to take in what is out there in the world before us; even a purely descriptive form of anthropocentrism, one that stops short of making claims about moral superiority but that, for example, restricts the definition of terms like ‘consciousness’ to conditions applicable only to the human case, constitutes a “failure of conceptual imagination,” “a failure to work hard enough for a truly capacious frame of reference” (Mylius, 2018, p. 187), thereby curtailing what we are prepared to discover in the world around us. The message from science, moreover, as researchers have begun looking into it, is that there is tremendous continuity as well as diversity in the world of life, and no evidence at all for a sharp discontinuity that could justify humans proclaiming some sort of metaphysical superiority over everything else. It becomes a failure of moral imagination as well, of course, when we try to justify harms to nonhuman nature by mentally erasing or psychologically denying the inner lives of other living beings. As Crist observes, this worldview ‘blocks the human mind from recognizing the intrinsic existence and value of nonhumans and their habitats’; it also, as she recognizes, deprives us of the ability ‘to experience awe for this living planet’ — something that we all might undergo if we opened ourselves to the immensity and magnificence of life as it has manifested over the last four billion years — and an experience that, she claims, should it be rediscovered, “would galvanize the world into action” in opposing the mounting mass extinction currently in progress (Crist, 2018, p. 1242). Anthropocentrism, in the widest sense, means we humans are always the center of every focus, that there is nothing greater than our burgeoning human enterprise. But there is something greater–the Biosphere, of which we are but a part. And thus the larger question before us, as we head farther and farther into the Anthropocene, is not whether we are endangering ‘human civilization’ — of course we are — but rather just how far down the anthropogenic extinction spasm now in progress is going to knock life on Earth.
Perhaps most seriously in terms of its consequences for us, however, is the effect of our presumed human supremacy in blinding us to ‘the wisdom of limitations,’ as Crist puts it. If every binary choice between human and nonhuman interests must always be made in favor of the human, and if every human life is always seen as much, much more valuable than any nonhuman life, then it should not be surprising that we have ended up with the astoundingly skewed ratio of almost 50 times as much biomass tied up in our single species plus our livestock as is found in all the remaining wild terrestrial mammals on this Earth (Bar-On et al., 2018). But how can there be ‘too much of a good thing,’ when it’s supposed to be the best kind of thing of all? One gigantic ‘elephant in the living room’ when it comes to our war on nature, a topic that the forces of denial have for all too long made taboo in polite conversation, is the unsustainable trajectory of our human population growth, which is now in itself crowding out nonhuman nature in many parts of the world (Crist et al., 2017), and which, when multiplied by the growing per capita consumption of ‘resources’ made possible by increasing affluence, is going to be a focus of increasing concern as we approach 2050; the situation does not bode well for any of the planet’s lifeforms, human or nonhuman alike. But our concern in this chapter has been with addressing the processes that gave rise to and perpetuate the war against nature, for the purpose of ending it; its current scope and predictable future consequences are topics for Chapter 12.
- Science describes and explains certain objective realities, independent of the diversity of perspectives and views.
- Even the simplest living organisms represent immensely complex self-regulating systems. The extent of complexity increases further from organisms to ecosystems and the biosphere. Numerous non-linear interactions are involved in their workings, many of them unknown.
- Despite their diversity, all life forms on Earth share a great deal of molecular constituents and biochemical processes.
- Biological evolution has created life forms of increasing complexity and diversity, joined into ecosystems through interactions and energy flows.
- Solar energy flows into ecosystems, travels through successive trophic layers of organisms and leaves in the form of heat.
- Humans evolved as primarily vegetarian primates that were subject to predation by carnivores. We evolved, and continue to exist, in integration with nature and are entirely dependent on her.
- All living organisms share a degree of awareness about their surroundings; many are able to interact intelligently with their environment with the help of diverse modes of sensory perception. The human senses constitute only a subset of those modes.
- Extending from our sensory perceptions, humans evolved complex systems of social interaction and communication through sound and gesture, culminating in language.
- Language allowed us to create names for things, shared representations that governed our interactions within and between social groups.
- Many other vertebrates share with humans a structural and functional partitioning of the brain that allows separate hemispheres to analyse the environment by reduction or by integration, respectively. Human language centers reside primarily in the left, reductionist hemisphere.
- Our abilities for abstraction and objectification of nature became particularly pronounced in Western European cultures, supporting the development of mechanistic and hierarchical world views which allowed the exploitation of nature as ‘resources’ and as means to human ends.
- Human cultures construct shared social realities that consist of structures and objects that are ontologically subjective. Yet, through their continuous use they tend to be treated as ontologically objective entities, as if they were ‘natural’. This includes our economic and political institutions, customs and traditions.
- Individual perceptions of’ ‘reality’ are informed by numerous such socially constructed and shared entities and relationships, at times in contradiction to what our senses tell us.
- This has influenced humanity’s interaction with ‘nature’ through a series of successively more disastrous stages, culminating in our ‘war against nature’. Reversing that course of collective development and averting its most catastrophic outcomes will require our critical engagement with the ways in which we make sense of the world and impart value on it.
- Explain your personal position with respect to the idea of a war against nature. In what ways do you find the ideas acceptable? How do you see yourself involved in this war?
- Identify the major combatant parties who are waging the war against nature in your community? In your province or state? In your country? How does the winning or losing of battles manifest in that context?
- Examine your personal development through childhood, adolescence and beyond: How were the ideas of anthropocentrism, human-nature dualism and left-hemisphere domination brought to your attention by teachers, peers, family members?
- What university courses have your experienced (or perhaps only heard of) that do not conform to those conventions? On what grounds did the instructors justify their dissent, if at all?
See Glossary for full list of terms and definitions.
- biotic pyramid
- collective intentionality
- consensual paranoia
- dualistic thinking
- ecological rationality
- fallacy of misplaced concreteness
- lethal raiding
- metaphysical metaphors
- mirror neurons
- neural network
- ontologically objective
- ontologically subjective
- social construction
- systems thinking
- theory of mind
Anthropocene: from global change to planetary stewardship (with Will Steffen, where his client is the Earth and humanity is the defendant)
Our shared condition — consciousness (TEDx Talk, with John Searle)
Elephant listening project (with Katy Payne)
Idea framing, metaphors, and your brain (with George Lakoff)
How trees talk to each other (TED Talk, Suzanne Simard)
How wolves change rivers (with George Monbiot)
Living in denial (with Kari Norgaard)
Moral behaviour in animals (TEDx Talk, Frans de Waal)
Solomon Asch experiment (with Philip Zimbardo)
What if the right brain hemisphere ruled the world? (with Iain McGilchrist)
Wood wide web: How trees talk (with Suzanne Simard)
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- For illustrations of these homologies, see Shubin (2008). ↵
- This figure may be under revision downward, to no more than 81% — see Stanley (2016). ↵
- See Ripple & Beschta (2011) and How Wolves Change Rivers video. ↵
- See also Simard’s TEDx talk. ↵
- See also Hall (2011) and Chamovitz (2012) for more popularized thinking about plants. ↵
- Watch the honeybee waggle dance video. ↵
- See List of animals by number of neurons for comparison diagrams. ↵
- Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) provides some detailed examples. Over the last five to 10 years or so, there has been a veritable explosion of research reports, popular articles and books detailing the cognitive capacities of other animals. For example, see Baboon Metaphysics (Cheney & Seyfarth 2007), The Genius of Birds (Ackerman 2016), ‘Thinking Chickens’ (Marino 2017) and What a Fish Knows (Balcombe 2016). ↵
- Frans de Waal’s (1982) Chimpanzee Politics provides a classic description of this kind of behavior, something that is often on display in our human realm as well. You can watch de Waal’s TEDx talk on moral behavior in animals. An excerpt from this video, highlighting the capuchin 'sense of justice,' can be seen in the video Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally. ↵
- See Nietzsche, F. 1974. The Gay Science. New York: Random House, Inc. pp. 169–172, pp. 297–300. ↵
- See, for example, Suzuki & Knudtson (1992) and Perkins (1994). ↵
- Watch a video introduction to the Solomon Asch experiment by Philip Zimbardo online. ↵
- For an accessible explanation of the shift in scientific thinking, see Capra (1996). ↵
- See, e.g. Plumwood (1993; 2002); also see Caviola et al. (2019). ↵
Proposed term denoting a geological era following the Holocene in which the geological, climatological and ecological characteristics of Earth have been noticeably changed as a result of the activities of a single species, Homo sapiens, which some mark from the onset of industrialization and which greatly sped up after the Great Acceleration of the 1950s (Chapter 1, Chapter 11).
A model or pattern; a framework for structuring thought (Chapter 11).
The branch of philosophy that addresses issues of existence and reality (Chapter 11).
Self-organizing and self-maintaining (Chapter 11).
The spontaneous emergence of order generated within an energetically open, complex system, largely by means of internal, informational feedback loops (Chapter 11).
The hypothesized Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA), marking the origin of life on Earth at about 3.5 million years ago, from which all other life forms evolved. This is sometimes depicted at the centre of the tree of life which displays relationships among living organisms outlined on the basis of genetic similarities (Chapter 11).
The appearance of large-scale patterns of organization not observable on inspection of the isolated parts of a complex system (Chapter 11).
The ability to engage in action under one's own power and control (Chapter 11).
Energetic relations among organisms in an ecosystem conceptualized in terms of a pyramidal structure. The base is composed of green plants that trap solar energy via photosynthesis, with smaller and smaller amounts of biomass being supported at successively higher levels of food chains or webs due to energy losses in the process of converting the body of one type of organism into the body of another (Chapter 11).
Net primary productivity (NPP), a measure of the rate of formation of plant biomass globally every year, representing the total amount of solar energy captured by photosynthesis after what is utilised by plant cellular respiration has been subtracted from the gross amount produced (Chapter 11).
The capacity of a system to cope with change, shocks and disturbances and continue to develop; the ability of a system to deal with disturbance while reorganizing so as to maintain the same overall structure, function and feedbacks (Chapter 9, Chapter 11).
Interconnected clusters of neurons whose coordinated firing produces specific results under certain circumstances (Chapter 11).
The ability to ‘feel one another's feelings’; to resonate emotionally with others (Chapter 11).
The ability to understand another’s point of view (Chapter 11).
A select set of nerve cells in the brain that are activated not only when an individual moves, senses a touch or experiences an emotion, but also when that individual perceives another organism moving, sensing or feeling; they ‘mirror’ the actions or reactions of the other (Chapter 11).
Thinking in terms of the multiple nonlinear interactions involved in the behaviour of complex systems (Chapter 11).
A form of intergroup conflict observed in chimpanzees whereby a ‘raiding party’ from one group attacks and attempts to kill members of another group (Chapter 11).
Collective projection by a human group of hostility, aggression and threatening behavior onto another social grouping so as to justify responding in kind (Chapter 11).
Either/or thinking that allows for no shades of gray, often with an implied good/bad polarization (Chapter 11).
Imagery derived from our experiences of living in the world that we imaginatively project into the deep structure of reality, beyond what physics can observe, in order to explain to ourselves ‘how it all works’ (Chapter 11).
Having a mode of existence that is independent of what human beings may believe, desire or otherwise intend regarding it (Chapter 11).
Having a mode of existence that is entirely dependent upon human consciousness, such as, beliefs, desires and intentions (Chapter 11).
Intentional states, such as beliefs, desires or intentions that are shared by a grouping of humans or other social animals (Chapter 11).
The process whereby we humans create collectively shared, ontologically subjective conceptual structures by means of language and other symbols, and organize our social institutions and our patterns of cooperative activity around them (Chapter 11).
Mistaking the abstract for the concrete, taking the concept itself for the underlying reality from which it is derived (Chapter 11).
Holistic rationality that grasps our human place within the biosphere and makes decisions compatible with the long-term survival of life on Earth (Chapter 11).
The ability to reflect back upon oneself, including upon one's own beliefs, motivations and actions (Chapter 11).
Centered on the human as the standard case or the locus of value, usually indicative of belief in human moral superiority and right of exploitation (Chapter 11).