Category: Darwin

Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.

Dewey, Art As Experience (1)

Ok, the first of at least three posts on Dewey’s Art as Experience.

This post will focus on one objection to Dewey’s position.  Then my next post will take up another objection, along with Nick’s rejoinder to that objection.  And the third post (finally!) will explain how Dewey’s book has helped to clarify my own thoughts on the aesthetic.

Objection #1:  What Bertrand Russell calls “Dewey’s metaphysics of organism” in his section on Dewey in A History of Western Philosophy.  Dewey assumes that situations have an intrinsic unity—and meaning.  One long passage, early in Art As Experience, suggests that metaphysics even as it also indicates why Dewey turns to the aesthetic to overcome the alienation, the compartmentalization, of modern life.

“Life is compartmentalized and the institutionalized components are classified as high or low; their values as profane and spiritual, as material and ideal.  Interests are related to each other externally and mechanically, through a system of checks and balances. . . . Compartmentalization of occupation and interests brings about separation of that mode of activity commonly called ‘practice’ from insight, of imagination from executive doing, of significant purpose from work, of emotion from thought and doing.  Each of these has, too, its own place in which it must abide.  Those who write the anatomy of experience then suppose these division inhere in the very constitution of human nature. [This paragraph summarizes the position Dewey is writing against.]

Of much of our experience as it is actually lived under present economic and legal institutional conditions, it is only too true that these separations hold.  Only occasionally in the lives of many are the senses fraught with the sentiment that comes from deep realization of intrinsic meanings.  We undergo sensations as mechanical stimuli or as irritated stimulations, without having a sense of the reality that is in them and behind them: in much of our experience our different senses do not unite to tell a common and enlarged story” (20-21, my emphasis).

Dewey’s position is spelled out in the essay “Qualitative Thought” (from Philosophy and Civilization).  Each situation is initially encountered through our grasping its “quality”—and that quality is singular, not plural.  Everything follows from this assertion of the “unity” of the situation.  “The underlying unity of qualitativeness regulates pertinence or relevancy and force of every distinction and relation; it guides selection and rejection  and the manner of utilization of all explicit terms.  This quality enables us to keep thinking about one problem without our having constantly to stop to ask ourselves what it is after all that we are thinking about.  We are aware of it not by itself but as the background, the thread, and the directive clue in what we do expressly think of. . . . If we designate this permeating qualitative unity in psychological language, we say it is felt rather than thought.  Then, if we hypostatize it, we call it a feeling.  But to term it a feeling is to reverse the actual state of affairs.  The existence of unifying qualitativeness in the subject matter defines the meaning of ‘feeling.’ [This sentence is the metaphysical assertion.] The notion that ‘a feeling’ designates a ready-made independent psychical entity is a product of a reflection which presupposes the direct presence of quality as such.  ‘Feeling’ and ‘felt’ are names for a relation of quality” (99, Dewey’s emphasis).  “When it is said that I have a feeling, or impression, or ‘hunch,’ that things are thus and so, what is actually designated is primarily the presence of a dominating quality in a situation as a whole, not just the existence of a feeling as psychical or psychological fact. . . . All thought in every subject begins with just such an unanalyzed whole” (100).

That feelings are relational—and created out of the encounter between self and world—suits the pragmatist interactional model that I heartily endorse.  What I object to is the notion that the world (as parsed out into situations) possesses a “qualitative unity.”  It seems to me more obviously right to say 1) that situations are multi-voiced, presenting a welter of components that do not cohere into any clear unity; 2) that the emotions produced by situations are equally plural, ambivalent, mixed, ambiguous.  Literature (among the arts) attends most carefully to this difficulty of simply understanding or naming one’s emotions; 3) that it is devilishly difficult to define the boundaries between one situation and another. The whole situation model is too visual and static, coming damn close to the “spectator theory” that Dewey usually and rightfully scorns.  Our most important situations—marriages, careers, parenthood—unfold over long periods of time and encompass an astounding range of emotions, purposes, actions, and undergoings.  Forging a unity out of such long-range projects seems to me to fail to experience them in their full complexity.  It’s like Leon Edel’s reduction of Henry James’ life to his rivalry with his brother William.  A unified explanation, yes; a plausible one, no.

Dewey’s stake in this insistence on unity seems, to me, encapsulated in the assertion that “human hopes and purposes find a basis and support in nature” (28, Art As Experience).  I find myself unable to believe that romantic and optimistic position.

Here’s my alternative view, which I derive from how I understand the pragmatism of William James.  In our interactions with the environment in which we find ourselves (crucially a natural and a social environment), we do (through acts of judgment) assess our surroundings and the possibilities those surroundings might afford and might frustrate.  Those acts of judgment are certainly some kind of mixture of thought and feeling, thus making a hard-core distinction between those two would be a mistake.  But those judgments are also almost invariably partial.

What any one person “sees” at a particular moment—and how she projects what is possible to do at this moment (in relation to long-term projects as well as to immediate concerns of comfort)—is determined by a number of factors (temperament, cultural conditioning, physical health, commitments to oneself and to others etc.)

But the “creativity” displayed in considering how to move from this moment to the next always only activates one of the plural possibilities that this moment actually affords.  Our actor may be aware of some of these possibilities; but that she sees all of them is highly unlikely.  We prize creativity precisely because it reveals possibilities to which we ourselves have been blind.  To use James’s terms, our attentions are selective; we only see part of what the moment holds.  There is always “more” that we do not see.  As a psychologist, James was interested in how attention selects, in how we fail to see some things even as we focus in on others.

Finally, the real (if we need to identify a pragmatist metaphysic) displays itself insofar as it enables or frustrates the attempts by the agent to make certain possibilities actualities.  Thus the stress on “experimentation” and “fallibility.”  We cannot know for certain in advance if this course of action will bear fruit.  We have judged that this line of action id possible and have predicted that it will have these outcomes, these consequences.  But we might well be wrong.

Thus, “nature” is not aligned with human purposes; it simply does not inevitably frustrate such purposes.  Nature is neither beneficent nor malign.  It just is.  It’s only significant feature, in this view, is its plasticity.  What nature can or cannot afford is not written in stone.  Work upon nature can change what is possible.  The lesson from today’s environmentalists is that we have probably been too sanguine about the human powers to change nature.  There are deleterious consequences to our work upon nature that we have failed to take into account.  A heroic, Promethean pragmatism needs to be tempered with more attention to the unfolding (over time) of harmful outcomes of actions that look like short-term successes.

In short, I am saying that if a situation can be identified as a singular situation, and if it is seen to possess a “qualitative unity,” that is because our judgments are selective.  In our interactions, we carve out something we call a situation from a more chaotic flux (James’s buzzing, booming confusion), and it attains a unity in relation to the purposes, desires, and consequent actions that are activated in relation to it.  My metaphysic is (and I think this is James’s metaphysic) a mixture of Heraclitus and Darwin.  The flux part is Heraclitus; the locked into perpetual interaction within a dynamic, non-static nature is Darwin.  Dewey—and lots of commentators besides Russell have made this point—sometimes follows the Jamesian metaphysics, but in other cases adheres the residual Hegelianism in his thought—which leads to the positing of all-embracing unities.

Does any of this matter?  Is it—as James would insist that we ask—a difference that makes a difference? Who cares if the unity exists (as Dewey says) in the subject-matter (meaning “out there” apart from the human agent) or if unity is forged by the human agent in her interaction with the environment?  I don’t really see (but, then again, I am not all religiously minded) that it makes much difference if I believe the world is attuned to my purposes or not.  So long as I have the experience of some interactions actually yielding outcomes close to those which I was aiming for, that seems more than enough.  The proof is in the pudding.  You win some, you lose some.  Beyond that, I don’t feel the need for some kind of cosmic guarantee, some assurance of alignment beyond what everyday interactions yield.  Others, it seems, feel differently (including at times William James).  They want to know that the universe looks kindly on, and deigns to respond to, their needs and the efforts to satisfy those needs.

More consequential, at least for me, is the problem of humanism.  To say that nature (a problematic term, by the way, and one which Dewey has great things to say about on 151-52 of Art As Experience) is not unified must not come to mean nature is inert.  Rather, nature is pluralistic precisely because it is composed of multiple beings with their own purposes, their own ways of acting.  In short, the term “nature” must be understood as something that is “assembled” in the same way that Bruno Latour thinks of “society” as being assembled.  To deny nature has a unity is to open the way to an understanding that humans are not alone on the planet—and to underscore the complexity of the multiple relationships that encompass “being with others” (human and non-human).

Dewey’s version of the interactionist model needs to be disconnected from his overly credulous faith in modern science and technology.  His belief in unity drastically—and dangerously—underestimates the resistance offered to human actions by the world—and the costs to other creatures and to multiple locales if those resistances are ignored or overridden.  We are learning now that those costs also redound to we humans as well.

There remains the psychological question.  Are we always inclined to forge a unity out of what the world presents to us?  Maybe we could positively interpret the fragmentation of so much modern art  as not a continual lament about the failure to attain “unity of being” (Yeats’ term for what he sought), but instead as an attempt to recognize multiplicity.  Celebration of diversity, even of incompatibility.  What could be more PC than that?  What would it mean to unlearn our habits of productivity, or eagerness to turn every moment to account?  To simply let go (as Isabella Tree and her husband have done at Knepp—as described in my previous post).  The results can look chaotic—and are certainly not “composed” in ways that are recognizably beautiful according to traditional canons of beauty.

Dewey is not necessarily hostile to such speculations.  The interactionist model is more than compatible with a stress on cooperation, interdependency, and appreciation for the different roles various participants might play.  To simply master the world to serve one’s own needs is coming to look more and more like a Pyrrhic victory, ultimately self-defeating.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could learn that attending to others’ needs is the best path to serving our own?  That may be too benign an interpretation of the prevailing state of affairs.  Competition exists alongside cooperation and interdependency in a fully Darwinian world.  But the fact (where my metaphysic takes its stand) that both competition and cooperation exist, just as the flux and achieved unities also both exist, works against any sense of unity, of being able to identify a single quality that characterizes our experiences.


I still owe myself a long post on Dewey’s aesthetics and my last conversation with Nick Gaskill on that topic.  Nick and I are now going to move on to some other writers.

But before I get to that, I have to write at least a short post on Wilding by Isabella Tree (NYRB Books, 2019).  My friend John Kucich put me on to this book—and now I have been buying copies for friends.  It’s an enlightening read, but (better than that) an exhilarating one.  It also gets me out of my rut, having me read something on an entirely new subject for me.

Basically, Tree is narrating the history of the conversion (by herself and her husband) of their large (3500 acres or 5.4 square miles) farm into a nature reserve.  They began the process of re-wilding their land in 2000; they own such a huge parcel—just miles from Gatwick Airport in Sussex, England—because her husband is an aristocrat who inherited the family estate that dates back to the 1700s. The estate is called Knepp.

For starters, “nature reserve” is really the wrong term.  Basically, the idea of “wilding” or “rewilding” is to get land to return to what it would be without human interference or management.  Hence, “return to” is not the right term either.  What the land will become if a hands-off approach is taken is unpredictable—and certainly not calculated to be anything that resembles what it might have been in 1650, 1750, 1850, or 1950.  The whole environmental context has changed and is always changing.  So what you will get if you let things go is just what you will get.

Of course, to say there is no human interference or management is also not completely accurate.  For starters, the acreage has to be fenced because one key—and another piece of human interference—is the introduction of animals.  Central to the whole project is the establishment of herds of herbivores: deer, cattle, pigs, and ponies.  The basic idea is that flora without fauna leads to unbalanced environments.  You need to establish the full food chain, from plants, fungi and insects all the way up to carnivores.  However, given their locale and the limited footprint, they have not seen fit to introduce carnivores, which means they have to cull their herbivore herds.

Tree is good at describing the various decisions made and their rationale, admitting limitations and set-backs.  But mostly the story she tells is of spectacular success—so much so that at times I felt skeptical.  But it is a tale of balance—and of intense interaction/interdependency.  By not trying to set conditions that would insure the flourishing of this or that endangered species, the result is the emergence of any number of species that were not expected to arrive.  What the experiment produces is an astounding wealth of life at every level, from the twenty-two species of dung beetle, to the reappearance of long-departed turtle doves and nightingales, to the flourishing of wild ponies.  And the landscape changes from year to year as it rebalances itself in relation to species that had been threatening to become over-dominant and to changes in this year’s as opposed to last year’s weather.  The whole story is one of a dynamic eco-system—and that dynamism, with its unanticipated interactions among different players, yields a dramatic tale that makes for a great read.

One big takeaway is that forests thrive when they are subject to constant clearing by herbivores.  Tree is adamant the “closed-canopy forests” are not the ideal they are often taken to be.  Meadows and marsh-land—what we often see as “scrub”—are richer, more ideal, environments.  The pictures in the book show land that is not picturesque or what has come to be considered “beautiful” or “natural” or “untouched” in contemporary sensibilities.  A fully occupied landscape—Darwin’s tangled bank—is not
“pretty,” but it is vibrant and teeming with life.

Tree’s book also offers an environmentalist screed.  A small part of the critique is directed at certain foibles of the environmentalist community—in particular, targeted conservation efforts that aim at the tunnel-visioned salvation of one or two species instead of taking a holistic approach, and at the whole notion of “invasive species,” as if the evolution of a landscape can be flash-frozen at some chosen moment of time.

But the main target is industrial agriculture and the demented governmental policies (and subsidies) that sustain it.  The wilding project itself is not about or enabled by walking away from governmental support.  Even if Tree and her husband could not garner governmental monies for their experiment, they still would have to contend with extensive governmental regulation about how they could manage their property.  The government (mostly the EU in their case, but also the UK) is neck deep in land management, almost all of it directed toward agricultural productivity.  Tree is most convincing that these policies—products of the post-war Green Revolution—are destructive and counter-productive in just about any terms you can imagine: economically, scientifically, environmentally, and in terms of both efficiency and nutrition.  It’s a crazy world out there, full of perverse incentives that have trapped farmers into a system that doesn’t serve them well and certainly doesn’t serve the food consuming rest of us.

There’s got to be a better way—and there is.  Now it’s a question of re-aligning government policies and governmental monies to put that better way into practice.  As always, the obstacles to change are formidable.  But Tree certainly makes the case that all involved would be better off if change was effected.

The great thing about the book is that, while awaiting more global change, it is the story of wonderful, tangible success in its own particular locale.  Instead of belly-aching about how bad things are, here is someone making things better, offering up a demonstration project of an alternative pathway.

Inevitably, I guess, Knepp has now gone in for eco-tourism.  Some way of paying the bills still has to be found.  However, in the time-honored English fashion, the grounds are also just free to walk via the footpaths that so often traverse farms in that country.  The land itself, like the book about it, invites us to enjoy a world that stands in marked contrast to the one we usually walk in.

Final Thoughts on Genetic Science

I highly recommend this essay by Matthew Cobb in the New York Review of Books.  It is a wonderfully succinct and admirably clear account of the current state of genetic science–and of the technical, moral, economic, and political issues that follow from what we can now do to genes.

I want to get down here some final reactions to the Mukherjee book, reactions also spurred by reading the Cobb essay.

  1.  Back to Down syndrome as a way of thinking about natural selection.  Mukherjee points out that natural selection works at the level of phenotype (the features of the organism), not at the level of genetics.  That is, natural selection works for or against what genes produce, but has no way of intervening in genes directly.  That’s why recessive traits can continue to exist despite their not leading to fitness.  But the case of Down syndrome is even weirder.  Down syndrome is a mutation, a random genetic event.  There are no carriers–although if a woman with Down syndrome has a child, the chances are about 50% that her child will have Down syndrome.  Males with Down syndrome are generally infertile, although now there have been some cases of Down syndrome males having children.  In sum, the actual incidences of Down syndrome persons having children are very low, but the former belief that Down syndrome came with infertility has now been disproved.

No matter.  The bigger point is that Down Syndrome, in the vast majority of cases and certainly throughout most of evolutionary history, has not been passed down from parent to child via genetic inheritance the way sickle cell anemia is.  Rather, Down syndrome is the result of a mutation.  But–and this is the remarkable thing–it is a mutation that, while random, occurs with a fairly regular probability that can be predicted.  About 1 in 1000 for a mother aged 20; about 3 in 1000 for a mother aged 45.  The regular process of creating human children predictably produces Down syndrome babies even though each of those events is random, just like each individual coin flip.  So here we have natural selection undermined by a stubborn, apparently ineradicable, mutation.  There is no way to argue that natural selection chooses Down syndrome, because Down syndrome persons do not reproduce (except in very rare cases).  But natural selection, which can only work through reproduction, also fails to eliminate Down syndrome because another naturally occurring phenomenon–a random, but still regular, mutation–over-rules natural selection.  My point is only that natural selection is not the only game in town; it doesn’t completely rule which mutations persist and which don’t.  Another blow to Darwinian reductionism.

2.  One fascinating thing about the history Mukherjee tells is that “the gene” was posited as a theoretical necessity before there was any proof of its actual, material existence.  Like the unobservables in physics, the gene was needed to explain certain phenomena even when the techniques needed to locate the gene did not exist.

3.  Eugenics are usefully defined by Mukherjee as any attempt to eliminate certain genes from the gene pool.  Early 20th century eugenics–both in the US and Germany–(like natural selection) worked at the level of features, of the phenotype.  Newgenics (as some people are calling 21st century eugenics) works at the level of the gene.  Again, we need to be precise.  We can eliminate the existence of Down syndrome persons if prenatal testing leads to the universal termination of fetuses with Down syndrome.  But we can’t eliminate the mutation that causes Down syndrome so long as there is human reproduction.  We can, if embryos are produced artificially, eliminate Down syndrome by controlling the reproductive process to such an extent that the mutation does not occur.  We can, however, eliminate hemophilia because it is a “one gene syndrome,” not a mutation, and targeted gene therapies can kill off that gene in its carriers.  Whether that elimination would be permanent is unclear–since presumably future mutations could bring it back.  But, at least theoretically, if an entire population was fully genetically tested, then the hemophilia gene could be eliminated in every one who possessed it. It is this fact, that we have now acquired the technical prowess for that kind of targeted gene therapy, that is at the heart of Cobb’s essay.

4.  Mukherjee’s definition (from Victor McKusick) of illness: “relative incongruence between a genotype and an evironment” (449).  Which means there are always two possibilities: working on the “patient” or working on the environment.  Disability activists often tell us that we don’t think often enough or creatively enough about amending the environment.  A reminder of old leftist arguments about psychiatry.  What proves I am crazy–and not this society in which I have to live?  As Mukherjee puts it:  “A child with a high-functioning form of autism may be impaired in this world, but might be hyperfunctional in another–one in which, say, the performance of complex arithmetic calculations, or the sorting of objects by the subtlest gradations of color, is a requirement for survival or success” (449).

5.  Cobb, more than Mukherjee, considers the dangers attached to the privatization of techniques developed by and even genes uncovered by the new genetic science.  Here we are back on Chris Newfield territory, the way in which public resources are used to produce knowledge which is then privatized.  In Newfield’s account (in Unmaking the University [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016]), the so-called public/private partnerships and the offices of “technology transfer” so lauded on today’s campuses are just a colossal rip-off.  A disproportionate share of  the risk and cost of research (the vast majority of which, after all, never bears any monetizable fruit) is borne by the university, but then, when a commercially viable result is produced, private corporations swoop in to license or patent it–and to begin to produce it for profit.  It is the scientific equivalent of the banks relying on the government to cover its losses (through the Federal Reserve and bail-outs) while they get to keep all their profits.  And this way of thinking about the issue doesn’t even touch the larger issues of a) our totally broken patent system which has allowed impossibly vague and far-reaching “ownership” of fundamental ideas and techniques that haven’t even been connected to actual production of anything yet and b) how privatization (as we have seen in spades with big pharma) leads to differential access to therapies that were developed on the public dime.  So everyone pays the first time around (through tax payer subsidies of research) and then the fortunate (those with enough disposable income) get to pay again the second time around, when they actually avail themselves of the results of that research.  Cobb tells us how Berkeley and MIT are engaged in a nasty patent fight over gene therapy–about which university’s scientists got there first and, hence, have the right to patent it.

6.  It’s a complex world out there.  The complexities of the genetic system are only matched by the complexities of political and social realities.  One thing comes through loud and clear in the scientific story: complexity is a short-term, but not a long-term, barrier.  Problems get solved.  Everything hopeful or fearful (often both) prophets of genetic science told us would someday be possible is just about at hand.  Things are generally more complicated than first imagined.  Nature is actually not all that elegant.  It’s more of a Rube Goldberg machine than some sleek Maserati.  Natural selection, like Donald Rumsfeld, has to work with the army it has, the materials at hand.  Plus (as I keep insisting) it doesn’t utterly rule the roost, so there are various compromises along the way.  But science really does seem up to the challenge of figuring it out.  Complexity itself is not going to prove a shelter for the romantics who cringe at the thought of full, disenchanted explanations.  Individual variation is a more hopeful shelter.  The introduction of chance–through mutation, incomplete penetrance, environmental differences and the like–still suggests limits to our predictive powers when it comes to saying what trajectory any individual’s life will take (even when we have a full map of his or her genetic makeup).  Still, science’s doggedness is impressive–and contrasts strongly with our inability (in the social sciences) to make much sense of our political and social realities.  Our lack of command over those scenarios seems more obvious every day.  John Dewey’s optimistic belief that the ways science has increased our comprehension of nature would be mirrored by a corresponding increase of our comprehension of society seems the least credible feature of his pragmatism. The advances made by genetic science wouldn’t be half as scary if we had any reason to be confident that we had the political capability of handling and controlling this new knowledge.  But just about everything we witness in our everyday world leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.  Neither the scientists nor the polis seems up to the task of using this knowledge either wisely or well.