Approaching Ecology

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses –
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three cows pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing flanks on the outcrop rock-heads –
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Robinson Jeffers


Today I want to talk about two factors I think are indispensable for an approach to the study of ecology that can bring not just knowledge but some desperately needed wisdom. One is a personal relationship with deep time. The other is the relationship between the biosphere and the planet and how that unfolds for us personally as the relationship between mind and body.

Ecology is the science that studies life in the context of the environments in which it is found. The combination has uncovered fascinating, paradigm changing insights into life, the universe and everything. Why did including the environment in our contemplations and investigations have such an outstanding impact on western thought? For that we will need to return to the roots of modern western ideas on a whirlwind tour.

The theology of the west has seen the natural world as little more than a stage scene, theatrical props supporting the real action and little more. The real action was seen as the human soul’s relationship with its transcendent creator, a creator beyond or outside the natural world. With the enlightenment the western mythology was further molded as we dared to dream of an unending ascent of man through the power of our science and technology. The enlightenment asserted that the human being reflected divine attributes in its ability to reason. Hence animals and women were accorded lesser status due to their weaker reasoning capacity than men. Mathematics was the queen of the sciences as we perceived ourselves to be ghosts in a clockwork universe governed by deterministic laws. Descartes drew the proper implications of this philosophy and asked just where exactly the invisible world of thought and emotion, vision and conjecture we immediately experience and the mindless, dumb, silent, mechanical universe touched one another. Charmingly, he suggested it was in the pineal gland that the immaterial and material universes interacted.

Soon after the scientific revolution of the enlightenment the earth was not the center of the universe, the ego was not the center of the psyche and Homo Sapiens were no longer the sole reason for the evolution of life. The worldview built on an unbridgeable gap between spirit and matter failed to provide meaningful understanding as the new data poured in. Everywhere we looked we encountered the need to take the environment in which the objects of our study existed into account; we needed to think in terms of systems instead of isolated abstractions.

Object + environment = system

The root of the evolutionary insight is that differential reproduction is a product of the ongoing interaction between the individual and the environment. All the bountiful diversity of life and the strength to endure through the deep time of billions of years comes directly through the interplay of the biosphere and the planet. Nothing exists apart from this interconnectedness. It is the relationship between life on the one hand, expressed as movement and awareness and the planet on the other in which mountains and oceans, forests and deserts provide the objects for life’s awareness and the landscapes for life’s movements.

This is fundamentally an expression of a pattern, of intelligence. The primary reality is the relationship. It is not possible to separate life and its environment. Mind and matter are abstractions which in the real world are not two things but one. The materialist cognitive science of our day confronts the uncanny proposition that physical nervous system tissue creates non-physical thoughts, what Francis Crick rightly called the Astonishing Hypothesis. The aspect of the so-called mind-body problem that strikes us as uncanny, from its first description by Descartes through to the Bayesian neural nets haunting the “thinking meat” of today, is an artifact of separating our abstractions in our own thinking and expecting reality to follow suit. It does not.

To see just how slippery the terms we often use unthinkingly can be, consider a simple amoeba. A single celled life form is about as simple of an example of life as can be found. Create a food gradient in a Petri dish with the food source at one end and allow time for the food molecules to disperse. Place that cell in an environment in which there is a food gradient and it will tend to move towards the food source. The seemingly random motion of the cell will form a tendency, a probability density, to move in one direction over the others. (I examine the amoeba and belief in more detail here)

There are mysteries here. We see a form of awareness of the environment, the data of the changing molecular concentrations of food being processed into actionable information and an exercising of choice, or will. Here in one of the simplest models of life conceivable a whole handful of terms are being used to expound our understanding but each term is a continuum; where is the exact demarcation of cell and environment in the “sensory” interface of molecular exchange happening at the surface membrane? Just when does the “sensory” data turn into information? Did the choice arise only for the cell or is it more of a programmed reaction to the environmental configuration so we would be more correct to say the will is in the environment?

With this last question we are approaching another way of understanding mind, awareness. By watching closely how information and data is actually formed and processed, the seemingly clear boundary we take for granted in western thought between mind and the environment gets fuzzy. This is part of what Gregory Bateson meant by an ‘ecology of mind.’ What might have sounded like poetic mysticism in this context takes on a type of scientific insight; one that values the unity found in the relationship between mind and its contents or life and planet more highly then the disunity an analysis into concepts provides.

While Descartes was able to doubt animals had any emotions or awareness worthy of the name, evolution and ecology as well as cognitive science discovers a single continuum of awareness running through all of life. It is a continuum that extends through, or somehow depends intimately on, the inanimate environment as well.

The basic, most fundamental insight of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. There is no part you can point to and say ah, this is where thinking occurs and nowhere else.

“The extraordinary patience of things!”
To begin to apprehend reality as it is, outside the narrow concerns of an individual life, is a form of worship. Your knowledge about the early stages of planetary evolution will not win you a raise and will only put you firmly in the geek camp as cocktail party banter. It does however give you a way to spend some time with a larger view of the universe; one that includes the un-human Jeffers refers to. Just to find it interesting to know how oxygen was first a poison or how the Pangaea supercontinent broke up is to show respect for the earth and the ways of planets. True there is no human interest here; no way to manipulate circumstances to avoid pain or acquire pleasure but this relief from those narrow concerns is a balm to the modern soul.

I have said before, in a sense life lives us. You are a child of deep time, a fruition of a life process that has been ongoing for billions of years, so long as to be unimaginable. We are able to capture the magnitude of these time spans conceptually rather easily but wisdom comes from deepening contemplations about them until they are felt in the body. The flow of blood is like the flow of rivers, the flow of signals in the nervous system is like the chemical communications of forest fungi tying together all the forest trees, the hard bones that give your body it’s structure are similar to the mountains and rocks, every breath you take is a participation with the atmosphere of rain and clouds – mythic metaphors, poetic analogies, scientific facts.

Gaia is the maiden of ecology. Scientifically the Gaia concept teaches how life shapes the non-living environment to create a context in which life can thrive. It is an intimate inter-penetration of organic and inorganic material flows, a dynamic summation of the biosphere plus planet. Mythologically the Gaia concept is a personalization of spaceship earth, the mother of us all, jewel in the vast darkness and emptiness of space. It is worth noting that Gaia, this earthly collection of patterned molecules, knitted together your body and Gaia brought forth your mind. In the mansions of awareness there are numerous experiences in which you get in touch with this reality in a visceral way. How could it be otherwise? In this family of experiences you are able to touch a profound rest, a snuggling into the breath body, or energy body, or heart body, or body-mind. This is the part of you that is a child of deep time and knows it.

Instead of a lonely outcast among the cold vacuums of space and blind, dumb planetary rocks we find ourselves at home on Gaia, our garden planet. We do not sense this if we are too caught up in the exclusively human concerns. The poet reminds us how to wake up from that dream:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Ecology teaches us what we are. It teaches what Jeffers tried to communicate with the term he coined, inhumanism. It is not pro-human or anti-human but outside this framework entirely. The Wikipedia entry for Jeffers puts it well, “the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the ‘astonishing beauty of things.’ Jeffers articulated that inhumanism symbolized humans’ inability to “uncenter” themselves… [a] recognition of the trans-human magnificence.” One perhaps non-intuitive result of inhumanism is that it encourages one to look on the wisdom and folly of the human race with a more kindly eye. The distance between the street urchin and the captain of industry does not seem so large nor the morality of our quickly passing societies quite so inflexible.

These are the ideas that provide what I think are the proper contexts to approach studying the sciences of ecology. We should approach them with a type of humility that is willing to see beyond our anthropomorphism.


4 Replies to “Approaching Ecology”

  1. TIAA,
    If you see this, thanks for referring me to this site. I read the top article and would like to read more.

    I immediately cut the following, and see that it was indeed the heart of the matter, since she ended with it as well:

    “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
    We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
    As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
    Robinson Jeffers”

    I feel very strongly in favor of this, and find the most glowing freedom in “uncentering” from the human world. I feel like a stone or a mountain. No problem. No thought. Confident. Life has taught me, and I can’t say how. All I can offer is thanks.

    Places come first. Things are as important as people. I’m not sure there is anything un-alive. Every object, every though, every movement potentially guides.

    If you picked up on this from my posts, then you are perceptive indeed!

  2. Dear Mindful Ecologist,

    Thank you for this. In considering how I am as much inhuman as I am human, I feel awash in relief, joy, and new connection. Whew! What a burden to see oneself as human only, as if broken from the great whole, when clearly we are not.

  3. Artleads – Thank you for coming by and reading. I am glad to hear you resonant with the poet Jeffers and it sounds like you are able to ‘think like a mountain’ as they say. Very Good.
    Oh, and I’m a he, for what it’s worth.

    Dea – Excellent. It cheers up my day to know a reader is able to share the meaning of what I am trying to get at. Thank you.

  4. You are most welcome MindfulEcologist and the feeling is shared.

    Hi Artleads! (TIAA) using my real name here. It’s all real here, and you resonate perfectly with what I got out of this sharing by MindfulEcologist.

    I plan on reading here regular and I look forward to your reflections if you stick around.

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