29 May 2015

Individuals, Philosophy, and Interconnectedness

Mycorrhizal fungus on roots
In Dan Everett's entertaining and thought-provoking book on his meeting with the Pirahã people of the Amazon (Don't Sleep There Are Snakes), one of the quirks of the culture he describes is the firm belief that no outsider can understand the Pirahã language. There is some objective justification for this, since in 300 years of contact with Europeans no outsider had ever managed to learn to speak Pirahã. Even the name Pirahã is Portuguese. As Everett began to gain proficiency in the language and to communicate with them in it, the view of the Pirahã people did not change. Despite conversing with him in their own language they continued to believe that he could not understand their conversations amongst themselves. This could be amusing, as they openly discussed what they thought of him as though he could not understand. At one point it was terrifying as the whole tribe got blind drunk and the men decided to kill him. The fact that they plotted at the tops of their voices allowed Everett time to hide their weapons and lock himself and his family in their house until everyone sobered up.

I bring this up because as I sat down to write about philosophy this image came back to me of people who believed themselves to be isolated by language, despite the evidence of their ears. The philosopher all too often proceeds as though theirs is the only mind in the world and they ought to be able to figure everything out from an isolated point of view. They do this despite communicating and even arguing over the details with other philosophers. Philosophers can be like the Pirahã.

A number of authors have made me rethink my own approach to philosophy, but in particular it was an article by Mercier & Sperber that made me rethink what philosophers do (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason). They make a case for reason having evolved to help groups make decisions, partly based on the fact that individual humans are in fact quite bad at reasoning since they frequently fall into cognitive bias or logical fallacy. 

We have a real problem in thinking about ourselves. To me it seems as though we, especially in the English speaking world, have been infected by a thought virus that is distorting how we see the world. It begins, of course, with the Greeks, but closer to home a complex of thinkers gave fertile ground for this virus. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism already see people as isolated. In Herbert Spencer's thought it translated into "survival of the fittest" as a law of nature. In society this translated into a libertarian ethic that justified exploitation of others for the purposes of accumulating wealth and power. Darwin was influenced by Spencer and took up the cry of "survival of the fittest". More modern influences are Ayn Rand (who advocated selfishness) and John Nash (the inventor of Game Theory, who believed all humans are completely self-interested). Richard Dawkins applied this ideology to biology and came up with the "selfish gene". To some extent we can see the obsession with the individual as an outgrowth from Romanticism, but combined with Utilitarianism it tends to dehumanise. 

Feminist intellectuals have been made an important contribution in identifying power structures in society. Power and wealth have more or less always been concentrated in the hands of a small number of men - a structure called Patriarchy. However, Feminists generalise this concentration of power to all men, which is where I disagree with them. In identifying the elite we can begin to identify and critique the ideas put forward to (self) justify their hegemony. Higher education and access to public discourse was largely a preserve of the elite until quite recently. With open access to universities during the brief window of liberalism in the 1960s-1980s people who were not part of the elite were trained to think. The trend is towards increasing elitism once again, suggesting that our window of opportunity is closing. Part of the problem with pre-twentieth century philosophy is that philosophers and other intellectuals were usually members of the class which they defended. The modern elite co-opts middlemen to enact their power through granting tiny amounts of authority over workers or underlings. While we vote for our government, we are unlikely ever to vote for our boss or our priest! 

We are presently living in a time of backlash against liberalisation from the elite; a time of increasing economic inequality that pays lip service to "rights" but in fact seeks to undermine the ability of anyone to challenge the power structure. Our civil rights are constantly being eroded by government for plausible reasons related to terrorism, though we seldom really consider the role of the government in making us the targets of terrorists in the first place. Had our respective governments not been involved in illegal wars and ham-fisted foreign policy of decades past, behaving like a playground bully, would we be in the position of sacrificing freedoms for security?

But really what started me down this road was thinking about how wrong the idea of survival of the fittest is when applied to individuals. Perhaps the most dangerous idea in history, because in the final analysis there is literally no such thing as an individual.


I've written quite often about metaphors and how they inform how we think. I've been critical about the underlying metaphors of the idea of what we call "spiritual" for example (see Spiritual I: The Life's Breath and Metaphors and Materialism). I've also written about the tree as the fundamental metaphor for evolution and have proposed the braided river system as a better, a far richer metaphor that could lead to more sophisticated thinking about evolution. A real set back for thinking about evolution was the application of Neoliberal ideology to evolution to produce the concept of the "selfish gene".

For a variety of reasons the solitary apex predator has fascinated humanity and over-whelmed other narratives that might be drawn from nature. The glamour of the predator is sublimated and becomes attached to the elite. Hogging resources and conspicuous consumption seem to be justified by equating members of the elite with apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain. Workers are equated with the herd animals that predators feed on. Of course it's not surprise that the same elite has made a sport out of hunting and killing predators, driving many of them close to extinction. And all this is entirely "natural". It's an ugly way of putting it and the spin doctors have of course found more appealing ways of justifying elites, while at the same time using nature documentaries to increase the glamour of predators.

Interestingly the recent trend in wildlife documentaries has been to show the sociality of apex predators, and the degradation of species on the verge of extinction due to human activity. Curiously the current round of BBC documentaries on sharks makes them not feared hunters and ruthless killers like the documentaries of the 20th century did. Now they are perfectly evolved, sleek, efficient and dynamic creatures which at the same time exhibit characteristics which evoke our empathy. Sharks who care for their young for example, or who are social. Metaphorically, or mythically in the sense it is used by Roland Barthes, this is saying that elite are only human, and no one can blame them for having out-evolved other fish in the sea. Indeed one ought to admire their the efficiency with which they go about sating their voracious appetites. So are documentary makers trying to justify the elites (who control what gets on TV) or do we share the goal of emphasising communality, symbiosis, and cooperation? Are they propping up the hegemony or undermining it? I'm not sure. 

The fascination with apex predators is only one way to look at ecology. In my lifetime Lynn Margulis, with considerable resistance from men in her field, managed to establish and popularise the idea that the cells that make up plants and animals (eukaryotes) are in fact the result of a series of symbiotic mergers between varieties of bacteria. At least three species of bacteria were required to get us to where we are. Last to join the party were the mitochondria. These organelles were free living bacteria that developed the neat trick of being able to metabolise oxygen, which up to that point was a metabolic poison. By becoming permanently embedded in the ancestors of all eukaryote cells, mitochondria bequeathed the ability to metabolise oxygen to plants and animals. So each of our cells is actually a little community.

Tree/fungus network
Tree fungus internet. BBC
Tree-fungus networks. SciAm
Another well know example of symbiosis is the commensal relationship of trees and mycorrhizal fungi. This symbiotic relationship is ubiquitous amongst trees. The fungi assist trees by breaking down the soil and making nutrients available, while the trees provide fungi food in the form of sugars. Neither can thrive without the other. Indeed the soil itself would not exist except for the action of fungi. The usual narratives of evolution, with survival of the fittest at their heart, cannot comprehend how important this relationship is. Symbiosis is a constant and vital feature of life on earth.

In the last few weeks we have seen that this relationship is more far reaching that we had imagined. Networks of fungi link trees and allow trees, including trees of different species, to share resources. A dying tree, for example, might send food to other trees via the fungal internet. The diagram on the right shows how two species of tree are connected in a small wood. Such fungi also enable a plant which is being grazed to warn it's neighbours, by sending chemical signals through fungal network, giving them the stimulus to produce more of the poisonous chemicals they use to deter grazing.

Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life. In this view, evolutionary fitness is achieved through forming cooperative communities in which symbiosis is the most significant form of relationship. In these relationships the individual organism actually has blurred boundaries at best. In fact the individual tree is penetrated by fungi that also penetrate other trees and link them together and enable to them to share resources and communicate other information. Tree and fungi have individuals aspects and overlapping aspects. Remove one and the other cannot live, though each has it's own DNA and reproduces independently. 

Animals all have a similar kind of symbiotic relationship with their gut flora. All of use carry around a couple of kilos of micro-organisms in our gut. We have long known that they assist us in breaking down our food. More recently it has become clear that the role these micro-organisms play is far greater. They not only break down food, but help to synthesise essential molecules, and are now implicated in the regulation of our immune system. (Compare: Commensal Bacteria at the Interface of Host Metabolism and the Immune System. Nature.) Indeed we could say that, like trees, animals are surrounded by a film of bacteria and fungi that are our interface with the physical world and that play an active role in our continued survival. We reproduce separately, but cannot live apart. 

A fantastic example of symbiosis in progress occurs in cicadas. These insects have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria called Hodgkinia, which live inside their cells (endosymbiosis). The long periods cicadas spend underground has had an extraordinary effect on the bacteria. Hodgkinia has evolved into two different species, both of which continue to reside inside the cells of cicadas. But what's more, the different species have suffered degradation of their genome through accumulated mutations and the isolation of life inside a host cell. Collectively the different species of bacteria still perform the same functions in the symbiotic relationship, but individually we see only a minimal functioning genome. Incidentally since all bacteria can successfully exchange nuclear material, they are technically one species with many varieties. Cicadas have other bacterial endosymbionts that are not similarly affected. 

So it seems that all plants and all animals are involved in symbiotic relationships with members of other kingdoms, particularly bacteria and fungi. Symbiosis is not a rare and unusual feature of some organisms that can be treated as a special case of evolution. Symbiosis is the key to understanding life as we know it. And our definitions of individuals skew the reality of what an organism is.

The ubiquity of symbiosis and other forms of cooperation amongst living things could easily have informed the metaphors and myths of nature that we use to understand and guide our lives. Had the founders of modern evolution not been Imperialists and libertarians looking for justification of their way of life, then we might have understood our place in the universe rather differently. Had Christianity been imbued with a sense of the web of life, rather than the Great Chain of Being, then we might have better appreciated our role in the whole. Sadly, we have the view that we do. So new science struggles to make headway. Results that ought to seem normal, to confirm our general hypothesis of how the world works, currently seem like outliers and exceptions. It may be many generations before enough examples build up to change the paradigm. I won't see the change in my lifetime, but there is reason to believe that such a change will come. 


It is sometimes argued, following the Whorf-Spair hypothesis, that we see the world as being made up of individuals acting as agents because of the noun/verb structure of our language. I think opinion in the linguistic community has swung away from this view, not least because Whorf was at times inaccurate in his descriptions of the North American languages on which he based his other ideas. We know of course that the subject/object distinction can break down in meditation. Those who experience this speak very highly of it and say that it is what we all ought to be aiming for. Unfortunately the ability (be it talent or dedication) to achieve these kinds of breakthroughs is rare. Most of us are trapped in a world of subjects and objects and have to make the best of it.

When we look closely we see that what appears to be an individual human, is in fact a community with many levels. Each cell is a community of endosymbionts, bound together for billions of years. But other types of newer endosymbionts also occur, with bacteria living inside cells, but as bacteria rather than as organelles. In our bodies dozens of different types of cells, totalling many trillions of cells, form an interlocking community. They work together to maintain optimal conditions for life. Another view of this is that our bodies maintain optimal conditions for taking in low entropy energy and excreting high entropy energy and everything else is incidental. In any case, surrounding this community is a halo of loosely bound symbionts that are intimately involved with our extracting nutrients from the outside world and protecting us from pathogens. 

In the case of animals we always need at least two, one male and one female, for reproduction (though of course some animals are hermaphrodites, and parthenogenesis does occur on rare occasions). Each organism has a use-by date, after which it ceases to be viable. Before that time it endeavours to create offspring that, by a combination of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, will be at least as well adapted to its environment as its parents, if not better. But if this strategy is to work then a large population is required to allow sexual recombination of genes to prevent a genetic bottleneck. Inbreeding causes mutations to build up too quickly and can be fatal to a species. Thus the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual, the couple, or even the extended family, but the tribe made up from a number of clans which in turn contain several extended families.

Other kinds of relationships are also essential. For example, in a city where no one grows food, everyone is reliant on distant producers they will almost certainly never meet to supply them with food. Water comes through miles of pipes and sewerage leaves through more miles of pipes. We exist in a web of relationships that sustains us.

The question then becomes, why are we so focussed on individuals? The answers are complex and would take too much time to articulate in full. One answer is that there is a distinct advantage to some individuals when we all think of ourselves as individuals. For most of us there is safety in numbers and individualism means we are less able to defend ourselves (and our wealth). This can be and is exploited by rogue individuals (the elite) who operate not like apex predators, in fact, but like parasites: they benefit at our cost, but both go on living. Through the socially liberal times when wealth sharing was the fashion this was less obvious. But since Neoliberalism took hold at government level, inequality has been rising again. In the last 30 years 90% of people have seen their wealth eroded, while the top 10% have seen substantial increases. All the gains in wealth have been at the top. What we have instead of wealth is more sophisticated entertainment! Or once expensive goods produced under slave-like labour conditions in third world countries that make us feel rich. It's the old trick of bread and circuses again. 

There are good arguments for seeing ourselves primarily as members of a community rather than as individual free agents. At the very least we need to be be far more highly attuned to how we relate to those around us, how we rely on each other to survive. People we rely on for food and water, shelter, for example ought to be important to us. Their well being is our well being in a very real sense. We ought, for example, to see taxes, not as the amount the government takes from us, but as our contribution to the general welfare. It's how we look after teachers, nurses, firemen, police and military who carry out tasks that benefit everyone. If we do not look after them, then our own welfare is put at risk. Unfortunately the elite are wealthy enough to avoid paying small amounts of tax and compensate by spending large amounts on educating their kids, private health care and so on. It's cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. 

Unfortunately the basic myths and metaphors of our modern society tend to blind us to important aspects of nature like symbiosis and highlight incidental aspects that benefit only the few. The reason for this is that for some centuries the myths of the people have been controlled by elites. Before industrialisation folk had their own stories, their own music, their own ways. Each community had their own versions of these, though as Michael Witzel has discovered we also share some myths across most of humanity. Now we all draw from a central well that is controlled by elites. The internet does offer a kind of ersatz alternative: margarine to the butter of a healthy human community. It looks and spreads like butter, but it is what it is: yellow grease.

The underlying myths and metaphors are what make the stories we tell sound plausible. Those of us who want change need to be aware of our own myths and metaphors. We can challenge old, poisonous views like "survival of the fittest" applied to human affairs. We can recast the story. We know that we cannot simply force collectivity onto people. That doesn't work. We also know that certain aspects of collectivity have a downside. Innovation and creativity require eccentrics pursuing their own goals and leaders drawing people along with them. But there must be a happy medium in which we honour our symbiotic, communal nature of life without sacrificing individuality completely. The odds are against us because the media used to communicate ideas and values to the masses are controlled by the elites, mostly run by people who are comfortable wielding their little modicum of authority, and tasked with distracting us from the serious business of life. But if we don't keep trying to shift the ground by choosing different myths, then we abandon humanity to a dystopian future. 

Buddhist Interdependence

It's often assumed that systems thinking (which is a broad label for the kinds of ideas I'm writing about here) is "just like" the Buddhist idea of interdependence. I can see why systems thinking is attractive to Buddhists, but it has hardly anything in common with traditional Buddhist thinking, despite what some modern writers would have us believe. To begin with these is no sign of any interest in interdependence in the early Buddhist texts. Dependent arising is largely focussed on mental states and these are not interconnected, but arise in a strict series, and the conditions of which are precisely stated (either sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition; or the nidānas or upanisās). It is only once Buddhists begin to apply Dependent Arising as a Theory of Every that we see interdependence emerge as a subject. And even then it appears to draw on Vedic religious ideas as much as Buddhism. Interconnectivity is a feature of the Vedic worldview which bases religious power on the ability to identify and manipulate correspondences between things in this world and things in heaven. 

Even so the chief sources of interdependence, such as the Gandhavyūha Sūtra, point to interdependence being a metaphor for śūnyatā. The idea being that all dharmas have the same important characteristics of lacking svabhāva (meaning precisely that a dharma cannot be a condition for its own existence). Thus if one can understand even one dharma, then one can understand them all. Or at least, one can understand of them all, that aspect which has soteriological value. Of course that soteriological value is often confused with an ontology, but it need not be. The image typically used for this way of seeing dharmas is Indra's Net: a net covered in jewels with the special property that each reflects all of the others. Far from pointing to some mystical dimension of reality, it is illustrating śūnyatā in metaphors and symbols rather than concepts. Despite the fact that Buddhists saw pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything, this more basic idea continued to exist alongside it. Perhaps because meditators seem to revalorise the importance of examining experience and undermine any grandiose philosophising that has been going on, from time to time. 

For most Buddhist intellectuals, for most of Buddhist history, "nature" has been seen as part of saṃsāra. And when Buddhists have imagined paradise, they have imagined it in decidedly unnatural ways: as perfectly flat, covered in precious stones, populated by beings who don't have sex and are born by apparition in gigantic lotus flowers, and so on. If Buddhists were nature lovers, there is little sign of it. It is true that some monastic rules seem to suggest that monks were proto-environmentalists, in fact the principle was that they not be a burden on the people who supported them. 

This has not stopped modern Buddhists from adopting the principles of ecology and environmentalism and claiming kinship between the two worldviews. I think this kinship is far from obvious. That said embracing environmentalism is a sane response to the damage that industrialisation and globalisation has caused and are causing in the world. When the climate of the whole planet is being nudged in a direction that is inimical to human life, any narrative that motivates people to take mitigating actions is better than none. On the other hand this can back-fire as has happened with the story of climate change. Too much of the climate change story has been built on unsound foundations, which has given wriggle room to those who wish to avoid thinking about it. And now it is probably too late to prevent catastropic change, at least James "Gaia" Lovelock thinks so.

On a cautionary note, I think the idea that this translates into "saving the planet" is hubris. The planet, life, will be fine no matter what humans do. It has survived for 3.5 billion years and suffered much worse than our manipulations (e.g. global ice-ages, comet strikes, planetary scale volcanism, mass extinctions). We tend to think of ourselves as the most advanced form of life, but in fact all forms of life presently around are equally evolved. Bacteria are the dominant form of life, with fungi a close second. And this will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Everywhere people have been, excepting space, bacteria beat us to it. From Antarctica to the hottest hot springs; from the upper atmosphere to the deepest depths of the ocean,; in the purest streams to toxic waste dumps; bacteria find a way to live and often share that ability with other species.

At the moment we have the basic metaphors and myths about nature, the environment, and our place in it wrong. What we have all seems to be based in Neoliberal ideology, or to have been developed along it and share the basic values of Neoliberalism. It's not in harmony with how nature actually is. And this means that we are not in harmony with nature, or with each other. We see ourselves all wrong. We only exist inside a series of nested and over-lapping communities. At the moment we are afflicted by parasites that are sucking our blood. If we see to the health of the communities we live in, then the parasites will most likely be dealt with quite incidentally. At least this is what nature is telling us.

In the Triratna Buddhist Order we have this image of the Order as being like the thousand-armed form of Avalokiteśvara and each one of us being like a hand, playing our part in the compassionate activity of the bodhisatva. My implement is a symbolic pen. I like to think of Gaia having a near infinite number of limbs, and every organism playing a part in a harmonious and efficient organism, gloriously surfing the entropy wave together.


Further Reading
Lovelock, James. (2000) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press.
Margulis Lynn. (1998) Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.

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