Friday, August 7, 2009

4. Darwin's Ecocenterism

The intellectual roots of Deep Ecology are found in ecocenterism and social criticism of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Aldous Huxley as well as George Orwell, Theodore Roszak, and Lewis Mumford. Cultural history of primal peoples, ecocenteric religions such as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and writings of Saint Francis of Assisi also influenced it. However, there is a curious lack of attention to Darwin’s ecocenterism. And yet, Darwin’s evolutionary theory is truly revolutionary in that it has provided a solid materialist and scientific basis for ecocenterism.

For centuries, religious belief and philosophical reasoning had placed Earth at the center of the universe. It also took more than 150 years of controversy and confrontation spanning most of the 16th and 17th centuries, from Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543 to Newton’s Principia in 1687, to revolutionize cosmology. These efforts led to present-day view of an expanding universe that may have millions of life-supporting planets in our galaxy alone.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory laid the groundwork for overcoming centuries of anthropocentric views of life on Earth preached by organized religions and influential philosophers. Naturalists had conceptualized evolution for centuries before Darwin. Greek philosopher Anaximander had suggested that all life-forms evolved from fish in the seas and went through a process of modification once they were established on land. Carl Linnaeus published the first volume of Systema Naturae (1735), which laid the foundation for taxonomy. He later suggested that plants descend from a common source. Darwin’s contemporary evolutionary thinkers believed that evolution unfolded like an ascending ladder in which each lineage of plant or animal arose by spontaneous generation from an inanimate matter and then progressed inexorably toward greater complexity and perfection.

Darwin rejected this linear progression in favor of what is now known as branching evolution, in which some species diverge from a common ancestor along separate pathways with no prior limits to how far this process can go. Darwin sketched a “tree of life” to illustrate this in his book Origin of Species (1859). But how this evolutionary change unfolded? Darwin’s great insight was the theory of natural selection. Taking a cue from Thomas Malthus, Darwin recognized that populations tend to grow quickly thereby exhausting natural resources. From the vast hereditary diversity within a given species, natural selection blindly weeds out those individuals with less favorable traits. That is a design without a designer. In fact, if two populations of one species remain isolated from each other in different environments they may evolve over a very long period into two different species.[i]

The modern version of Darwin theory benefits from the field of genetics that Gregory Mendel’s research on inheritance (published in 1865) founded, and the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.

Thus, Darwin provided us with a materialist ecocenterist view of life. The prominent evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr offers a good summary of Darwin’s contributions to modern thought:

“… [H]e established a philosophy of biology by introducing the time factor, by demonstrating the importance of chance and contingency, and by showing that theories in evolutionary biology are based on concepts rather than laws. But furthermore - and this is perhaps Darwin's greatest contribution - he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism; essentialism or typology is invalid, and we must adopt population thinking, in which all individuals are unique (vital for education and the refutation of racism); natural selection, applied to social groups, is indeed sufficient to account for the origin and maintenance of altruistic ethical systems; cosmic teleology, an intrinsic process leading life automatically to ever greater perfection, is fallacious, with all seemingly teleological phenomena explicable by purely material processes; and determinism is thus repudiated, which places our fate squarely in our own evolved hands.” (Mayr, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”, 1999).

The benefit of Darwin’s contributions to Deep Ecology and Marxian theory is immense.

[i] This paragraph is a summary taken from “Darwin’s Living Legacy” by Gary Stix, Scientific American, Volume 300, Number 1, January 2009.


NTROPEE said...

Do you think the basic materialist approach underlying Darwin's theory of natural selection can be applied to the process of cultural evolution?

For example: Human cultures have had to adapt themselves to their natural environment and also to surviving their interactions with other (sometimes hostile) human cultures. Surviving in their habitat would require a culture to respect its ecological limits. But defending itself from hostile neighbors might encourage a culture to over-exploit its habitat.

Thus there seem to be two contradictory tendencies: (1) a process of competitive exclusion between cultures that would motivate them to over-exploit their habitats in order to defend themselves from others; and (2) a process of ecological accommodation that would encourage a culture to adopt a symbiotic, reciprocal relationship with its habitat.

Of course, new dynamics enter the process of cultural evolution once class divisions appear and later when the profit motive accelerates the process of environmental exploitation.

What do you think?

Kamran Nayeri said...

This is too big of a question for me to address. But let me note the following that may be useful. Evolutionary theorists debate whether natural selection operates on the "micro" or "macro" levels. In an article in Scientific American (January 2009), Steve Mirsky notes that Darwin himself argued for group selection. Others, such as Richard Dawkins argue that selection operates on the level of genes: individual organism is the embodiment of the selection of thousands of selfish genes, each trying to perpetuate itself.

E. O. Wilson (of Harvard) and David Sloan Wilson (no relation) agues for group selection. They maintain that selection operates on multiple levels simultaneously. In each case, one or another level may be dominant. However, they argue that kinship (that increases genetic variations among groups) accentuates the importance of group selection. They argue that the study of social behavior from a biological perspective--what E.O.Wilson termed sociobiology--can benefit from the multiple level approach to selection.

E.O. Wilson's book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) attempts to base all human social domains, including culture, on biology. I hope to return to this issue and to E.O. Wilson's contributions later. But he is a fascinating thinker well worth becoming familiar with with respect to the question you posed.