Process, Ecology, and Ontology
by Adam Robbert
It seems that Michael, Matt, and I have been running around searching to articulate a similar, emerging possibility; that of an ontology read within an ecological frame of reference. We might call such a project, inadequately, an eco-ontology or an ecological realism. I have some particular opinions on this matter that I would like to share, in part to fuel this dialogue further, and also because I sense that this is a sort of “edge” to which thinking is currently struggling to align itself with. Some of the following arguments will be distinctly ontological in character; others will be of an empirical variety coming from the ecological sciences. I would like to suggest that ecology and ontology are merging in two ways: the first stemming from ontological problems having to do with evolution and relationality, the second having to do with empirical problems in the physical sciences. By thinking ontologically about ecology and thinking ecologically about ontology, we may go some ways towards clarifying both.
A central component of the eco-ontological debate currently centers on its relation to Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology” (see the comments on THIS post). Since I am not a Heidegger scholar, nor very familiar with his work, I will not weigh in on these discussions, but I hope that a fair and thorough going analysis of the relationship between Heidegger, ecology, and ontology is produced sometime in the near future (perhaps it already exists somewhere). What I can offer in this context, however, is a perspective of the relationship between ecology and ontology that is informed by my understanding of the history of ecology and evolutionary theory, on the one hand, and a consideration of current debates and problems in the life sciences on the other. I am aware that a thorough consideration of the status of empirical sciences need not necessarily have import for a discussion of ontology, yet, I argue here that the two are necessarily connected and mutually influential. Matt put it nicely in a previous correspondance:
I’d argue that any empirical science, ecology included, can only ever be theorized/practiced given that underlying ontological assumptions are already in place; the trick is separating out the metaphysical abstractions that do harm to empirical realities from those that don’t. This is easier said than done, both because it is often impossible to tell before concrete damage has already been done, and because thinking is inevitably situated, so we must always ask, “whose being is being thought this way, and why?” This is especially the case in a pluriverse, where many umwelts overlap and many organisms vie for limited resources. Stengers’ notion of the “riskiness” of abstractions is relevant here.
Very well said. Let’s begin by looking at the historical connections that follow ecology throughout its development. As we know, Heidegger is not the only person to make ecology and evolution difficult to talk about in political or philosophical contexts. Modern accounts of evolution have always been tied to their contextualizing social structures, and in many ways, it has been the social realm that has influenced the thinking of topics such as evolution and biology, rather than the reverse. Of course the relations between knowledge production and cultural context are always recursive, but in this case I am putting more emphasis on the social context. (A brief disclaimer: the context is important, always, but never fully sufficient as a determining principle. For this reason I hold to the fact that science does produce a specialized kind of knowledge about a “real” world, though this is also a contextualized knowledge, or a kind of situated objectivity). Hopefully, by taking an (all to brief) look at the history of evolution and ecology we will see that it is always attached to contexts and places which we might prefer to leave behind. This should not deter us from thinking about ecology and ontology, but rather provide for us examples of how situational science always is.
In a religious context, natural theology provides us a clear example of the relations between culture and scientific knowledge. Modern European thoughts about life and evolution emerge with a distinctly theological orientation. We need only observe the plethora of writings from Carl Linnaeus (where he links the taxonomy of species to a divine change of being), or to William Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God as a divine watchmaker. Founder of modern geology Charles Lyell’s view of the Earth was tied deeply to science, but also to prevailing intuitions concerning God’s nature. For Lyell, evidence of God’s participation in the structure and order of the world could be directly evidenced by the observable fact that the earth had apparently maintained a perfect and self-regulatory system for the entire period to which human inquiry had access. This of course turned out not to be the case. More recently one could also look Teilhard de Chardin’s christocentric and evolutionary perspective to find similar ties.
On the socio-political end of the spectrum we find that, before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published there existed a large amount of literature, coming from Thomas Malthus for example, on the nature of existence as competitive and grossly utilitarian. “Social Darwinism” as a concept actually predates Darwin’s own thinking on evolution, and not the reverse. In other words, Darwin’s work did not produce the conditions for thinking social Darwinism, but rather such notions were already embedded in a Victorian-Christian-Capitalist matrix which supported that point of view. Darwin cannot himself be reduced to any such perspective, as his thinking on the processes of evolution were much more nuanced and sophisticated than his contemporaries (in my estimation, public understandings of evolutionary theory is actually at a lower level today than what Darwin argued for in the late 19th century). “Survival of the fittest” and the like are not, strictly speaking, necessary conditions for understanding natural selection. This particular paradigm is no longer seen as an adequate descriptor of evolutionary dynamics (more on this below).
Further on these points, it is not controversial or unknown to comment on Ernst Haeckel’s metaphysical commitments of thought that colored his conception of the word “ecology” which, as we know, he coined in the 1860s. Among these we find an ontological commitment to a strict monism, and a political commitment to an undemocratic, scientifically managed society coordinated by an elite group of social engineers, who would be educated in the highest science of the day. This is of course problematic and unacceptable, both because scientific knowledge does not in fact (now or then) provide any government with the necessary knowledge to completely “manage” a society, and because a metaphysical commitment to such management destroys the possibility of democracy. Thankfully, much of current scientific discourse seems to indicate that such management, predicated on complete predictability, is impossible (this, by the way, appears to be an ontological issue with the structure and nature of complex systems, and not an epistemological problem having to do with human lack- so much for total management!)
All of this is to say that of course ecology has always been tied to modes of thought that we no longer find acceptable. We can call the negative valence of ecological thinking a kind of “ecofascism,” which is just one variant of the more general problem of totality and holism. However, ecology and ecofascism are certainly not the same. Ecology, as it is understood by scientists today, is much more nuanced and interesting than any forms of holism. Let’s take a look at the science of ecology we know today and how it might relate to larger ontological issues.
For most of its historical career, ecology was faced with a fundamental problem, which was also its central object of study: the relation between organisms and environments. Though this seams like a fairly straightforward premise of study, little was done, until recently, to adequately link the physical structures of the environment, with the biological characteristics of the organism. For much of the twentieth century, evolutionary theory, which focused on the biological organism, and ecosystems science, which focused on the holistic energy flows of the physical environment, remained inadequately linked. Organisms, we have known since Darwin, evolve by processes of natural selection. Environments, because they do not contain genes to pass on, cannot be said to “evolve” in the same way. Yet it was clear even from the early 1900s that there must be a significant link between the two. There were two basic approaches to this problem.
Systems theory and cybernetics became the mainstay for the study of ecosystems science, and for this we owe a huge debt to Eugene and Todd Odum who were the first to articulate and popularize a full ecosystemic theory of ecology. They used thermodynamics to understand the nature of ecosystems by studying energy flows through the trophic structures of the organisms in an environment. This provided scientists with a huge amount of access into the functioning of physical environments, but did not help biologists understand evolution sufficiently. “Organisms,” from an ecosystems perspective, tend to get lost in larger holistic flows of energy, thus ecosystems ecology didn’t provide a solid perspective of evolution.
On the other end of the organism-environment divide, evolutionary biologists were still thinking about natural selection in terms of “adaptive fit,” the view that saw organisms as competing for survival within the context of a pre-existing and fixed external environment. The evolutionary biologists were able to understand in great detail the evolution of populations of organisms, but still remained in the dark about what the specific changes in evolutionary dynamics meant in terms of the transformation of the physical environment.
Ecologists now recognize that evolutionary biology and ecosystems ecology both produce partial, but inadequate accounts of organism-environment dynamics. A variety of approaches have arisen to describe the complex relationships between genes, organisms, and environments. The key names are Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, but we can also turn to Susan Oyama’s developmental systems theory (DST), niche-construction theory (NCT) and Varela and Thompson’s autopoietic paradigm. Though different in many ways, each of these approaches recognizes that evolution is always already eco-evolution. In other words, evolution cannot be described by natural selection or ecosystems dynamics alone, a synthesis is needed, but how? This next part gets a little technical, so just bear with me.
NCT provides perhaps the simplest explanation: organisms are provided a certain set of instructions by their DNA (semantic information), these instructions allow the organism to modify their environments in a species specific way. The semantic information provided by the organisms DNA can be linked to the thermodynamic energy flows of the ecosystem, each reflecting the modifications produced by the other. Since organisms can be interpreted as semi-permeable energy systems, one can link the flow of energy outside the ecosystem with the flow of energy inside the organism AND since the modifications of energy flowing within the environment are produced from the semantic information given in the organisms DNA, all three components: genes, organisms, and environments can be linked in an eco-evolutionary way.
This form of eco-evolutionary feedback operates on all scales and levels of ecosystems and organisms. Humans are a tremendously obvious case of the manner in which organisms transform their environments, but all organisms do this. The atmosphere, for example, is itself largely constituted by the respiration of organisms; the ecosphere is partly the self-organizing product of species behavior! NCT provides us with a way to consider ecology as a social negotiation between all interacting organisms and environments. Further, cognitive ethology provides us with strong grounds to this argument by adding an understanding within which it appears that almost all animals engage in cultural activities, learning, teaching, reasoning, and emoting. Thus, Societies emerge long prior to humans and we should consider the Earth’s ecology an ongoing negotiation between communities of organisms and the planets geophysical features. These systems are complex and non-deterministic, in other words, they are historically enacted.
Hopefully, considering this history of ecology as well as some of the latest science produced in the field can help us to leave “ecofascism” behind and allow us to consider ecology as a viable blue print for an ontology. We need not strife over any fascistic undertones that may have tainted ecological theory in the past, though maintaining a critical eye towards their re-emergence is always advised.
Now, I am still not saying that empirical science is ontological, only that it might help us think ontology. Particularly if we are open to speculative philosophy. Case in point: in a recent response to Micheal’s previous post, Ross Wolfe commented:
My only response to this is that ontology is too rigid and static a system within which to make stable claims about objects. Any particular state of being that prevails at a given moment is only a snapshot, a freeze-frame, of the ongoing flux of history.
While I agree with this statement generally, I would like to suggest that an ontology based in speculative philosophy, particularly that of Alfred North Whitehead, and is inspired by the insights of ecological thinking, does not fall prey to Ross’s criticisms (which despite his claims to the contrary, are still thoroughly ontologically committed). In order to take this next step, we must switch from a consideration of ecology as an empirical science, to ecology as the basis for an ontology.
The concern often goes that if we ground society in Nature (or wilderness, or ecology, or whatever) than we run the risk of losing our freedom as human individuals or societies (more ecofascism). An ecological process ontology, however, runs no such risk. There are two reasons for this. The first is that we must re-encounter the nature-culture divide, not by sinking society into nature, but, as Matt Segall is right to point out, but by suggesting that nature is already a kind of society. Or in another words our cosmos is equally socius. In this way, our cosmos is an ecologically interacting society of diverse entities, processes, flows, and objects. The ontological character of these relationships may actually itself partake in the ongoing evolutionary flow of things (does ontology evolve?). Being is process and this process is ecological. Another way of saying this maybe to suggest that ecology goes all the way down, or rather, ecology is an ontological feature of all relationships. Natural ecology in this way is only one example of a more general ecology that is a pervasive aspect of all relationships between entities.
I follow Alfred North Whitehead’s organic realism in this context and would actually like to suggest that his philosophy of organism is profoundly ecological in character. We might also read a similar intuition from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Integral Ecology’s emphasis on interiority as a fundamental feature of any entity, and Levi Bryant’s increasingly ecological tone to his onticology. All of these approaches suggest that the cosmological structure and dynamics of the universe are in some way evolutionary, affective, and ecological. The cosmos can in fact be seen as a kind of ecological wilderness at an ontological level, and on an empirical level. We must of course guard against the ecofascism of overly holistic thinking, but recall that we are emphasizing ecology (both ontologically and empirically) as a complex system that does not reduce us to an already existing “Nature,” but rather roots all entities within an unfolding, evolutionary cosmology that is historical and social in character before the advent of human beings. Humans, for their part, can be seen as especially consequential within the context of a planetary ecology, but are therefore more obligated to engage in ethical behavior both socially and ecologically. We can in this way affirm the nature-culture divide, so long as we understand that nature is already a kind of society that must be negotiated by humans and nonhumans.
I am happy to entertain any and all problems with this line of thinking. It is an experimental project in its early stages.