Ecozoic Evolution?

by: Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

for: Whidbey Island Conference

August, 2002


Table of Contents

Introduction. 3

What Works. 4

A Riskier Path. 5

Language. 7

Pathologies. 10

Environment as a Dangerous Idea. 12

Evolving Culture. 15

Evolving an  Ecozoic Identity. 19

Conclusion. 25


            This paper takes up the question of what ecozoic evolution might mean in the context of biosystem evolution in particular and theory of self organizing systems in general. I ask not only what it could mean, but whether there is any realistic hope, however tenuous and uncertain, that it might actually happen. From where we stand at present, there are innumerable and evident paths to collapse, while the emergence of a higher order of systemic integration and function, however needed and hoped for, is difficult to conceive without the added light of one of our great faith traditions.  To anticipate the conclusion of this analysis, I find more reason to hope than I have had before--or perhaps I should say a more reasoned hope.

            This essay is a portion of a larger project, extracted and much reworked for this conference. Some  fundamental concepts are used but not explained, but I hope the context is enough that they can be picked up on the fly. Especially important background sources upon which I draw but do not annotate in this rough draft include:

Illya Prigogine and IsaBelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos, for self-organization of far from equilibrium dissipative or "open" systems (e.g. living organisms).

Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, and  Investigations, for self-organization especially of living systems.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and Mind and Nature, for information theory, systems theory, and more than can be enumerated (or understood!).

Terrance Deacon, The Symbolic Species, for tools to understand how the with the emergence of language humans cross the critical and problematic threshold.

The evolution of life is, critically, an information process. Gene pools serve as the problem-solving, guiding minds that continually hone and shape the reproductive fitness of species, with the intertwined systemic environment providing the selective criterion of what fits and how well it works. The information of what is working in the environment is fed into the gene pool in statistical form: how many genetically tweaked this way compared to that way make it through the reproductive gate.

Of the innumerable life strategies this mind has come up with, one is a trajectory that leads to conscious information processing. We humans may be the crown princes of this trajectory, but we have a lot of company. None of our fellow travelers on the consciousness path have thrown the planet into a state of ecological crisis, so some account of what is special about us will be in order.

Something is not working so well. Hopes for an "ecozoic evolution" are hopes that the system can heal by ratcheting up instead of by collapse. To understand healing, we must understand what is not working, and that is premised on what works. So we will begin with an example of a strategy that seems to work. Understanding how and why it works, we can get some idea of risks, trade-offs, and potential utilities in the alternative strategic line to which we belong. Our strategy has now taken over the world. But so have the ants. We will begin with them.


What Works


Ants fill the world, diversifying into more than 9,000 species to occupy virtually every sort of environment and explore multiple and intricate life strategies.  Some herd aphids like cattle, moving them from plant to plant for good feeding and in return 'milking' the sweet juice they excrete  . Others are expert hunters and gatherers adapted to whatever opportunities the environment has to offer. They invented true agriculture 450,000 years ago. Leaf-cutter ants cut leaves and carry them back to their carefully tended underground gardens, where a special fungus grows from the mound of decaying leaves. They have even developed an antibiotic which they use in their gardening to inhibit the growth of a mold that would destroy the crop of fungus from which they live. The ants eat the fungus, and use an antibiotic to prevent the growth of molds that would destroy the fungus. Able to master such complex adaptive strategies, ant populations thrive: the total weight of ants in the world about equals the total weight of humans, so one can imagine how they dominate the environment by considering what the human population would mean if every one of us were broken down into ant-sized units and spread around!

Their highly sophisticated communication system  facilitates the achievements of the ants. They employ  a range of some 23 chemical signals, as well as patterns of tapping on one another with their antennae,  to communicate everything from "head in this direction for food," to "give me a drink of water," and "it's time to move the aphids," or "adopt me into your nest." Complex communication enables very complex social organization and adaptive flexibility, even while each ant as a unit is relatively rigidly programmed in its responses.

The rigidity allows other creatures to co-evolve to live with, and even live off of the services of ants. Various sorts of butterflies have hit on the strategy of laying their eggs on plants tended by particular species of ants. The larvae secrete fluids attractive to and nutritious for ants, and in return get protection from the ants from wasps and other predators. A number of insects have cracked elements of the ants chemical code, and by emulating it turn ant society to their advantage. Ants recognize nestmates by odor, so beetles and other insects that master to local aroma get an entrée to the community. As E.O. Wilson describes it, "Despite the fact that they can pass no other conceivable test of recognition, they are readily admitted to the company of the ants, who are then inclined to feed, wash, and carry them bodily from place to place." (123)  In some cases this can turn into truly gross exploitation, as in species that get their eggs adopted into the ant nurseries, and then upon hatching feed upon ant eggs or larvae.

One can see how the gene pool can strategically limit any setup among the ants that pays too high a price in exploitation. At the same time ants are rewarded for their strategically modulated flexible rigidity by a co-evolving environment, an eco-systemic feedback loop in which their dominating presence is both sustained and sustainable. The flexible intelligence of the gene pool can use the rigid probe of complex but hardwired capabilities and responses to work out elaborate and highly effective adaptive strategies.

A Riskier Path

To be alive is to have a problem: the next meal must come from somewhere. The fact that the world is always to some extent changing under our feet adds to this elementary alimentary problem, since arrangements that used to work well may not work well in the future. Hence intelligence, processing information to effectively flex around and solve problems, is fundamental. Fast genetic feedback operates across multiple generations to tune and keep insect responsiveness on target in changing circumstances; but larger, longer lived, more slowly reproducing creatures confronted with change may be better served by a less tight dependence upon the gene pool to remember and selectively elaborate strategies that work.

Loading a species with flexible responsiveness comes at the price of proportionately diluting the information content and strategic tuning capacity of the genetic feedback loop. If genetically similar organisms can exercise a wide diversity of options in a given environment, the presence in the gene pool of the genes of those who succeed and reproduce and the absence of the failures, will carry no information to the gene pool about the different behaviors that are working or not working.  If omnivores develop elaborate and highly specialized food gathering and cultivation processes, they are more likely to do it by their wits, not by their genes.

The emergence of such organisms is therefore accompanied by and even made possible by the emergence of a new strategy regarding learning. Individuals more loaded with flexible options need onboard memory to record what works, and imagination to apply the recorded past to an always arriving future. Learning by experience evolved to fill new spaces not reachable by hard wired genetic intelligence. A dog or a human may have hard-wired fight or flight responses aroused by perceived threats, but learn by experience to judge what is a threat, and how much of a threat it is.

Learning by experience thus fills out and complements the genetically controlled realm of instinctive response. The problem-solving individual mind, shaped in its responsiveness by the unique experience of an individual life history, adds a new kind of   variety and individuality within species where this is a pronounced strategy. We recognize distinctive personalities among dogs and cats and many other animals when we become intimately familiar with them. 

If we look about us in the community of life, we find that we stand out as the extreme example  of weighting the individual for experiential learning. So much do we depend upon this strategy in order to make our living, that we even consider it our distinctive mark that we seem to be "born without instructions." This of course is a bit exaggerated. Virtually all of our essential bodily processes remain on automatic pilot, so that, in our drive for conscious, intellect based control, we have had to learn to reach back to the genetic information processors. We are equipped with basic instincts for food, reproduction, self-preservation, and perhaps sociability. But it is true that how we work out ways of living that take care of these instincts seems extraordinarily open to learning from experience. Instead of being born with a world, we are socialized into one. (Berger and Luckman)

We are far from alone as representatives of this general evolutionary strategy. Research in animal psychology has steadily eroded our sense of uniqueness. The apparent discontinuities begin to be filled in as we discover creatures such as chimps and dolphins exhibiting degrees of capacities we once considered exclusively our own. We are evidently not the only self-aware, imaginative symbolic manipulators on the planet, though we seem to have left the others so far behind that only in the last few decades have the continuities become recognizable.


Why is there such a gap between humans and other creatures that utilize experiential learning? Systems theorists use the term “threshold” to designate situations in which a small incremental change suddenly transforms everything: at some point, another degree of heat makes water boil into steam, or a degree less crystallizes it into ice. With regards to what it means to learn from experience, the critical threshold may well be a matter of communication, sharing information. What heat is to the condition of water, communication is to the realm of information processes.

  In the vast majority of cases a large foundation of instinct predefines the terrain, so experience adds useful flexibility to lives that, over generations, remain similar and relatively predictable. The genetic strategy, gradually evolving and preserving what works,  remains in control.

Only when we come to human society and culture do we find a clear example of experiential learning unloosed to elaborating the kind of systemic complexity and variety that genetic learning has achieved with its 9,500 species of ants.  We are indeed as much a part of the natural world as any of our fellow creatures, but within nature we represent the sole visible experiment in the consequences of unleashing experiential learning from genetically hard-wired instinct. As such, the rest of the living world bears a certain self-similarity we identify as "natural," and with reason we identify ourselves as significantly different from that. We are.

We can identify  communication thresholds and their dramatic effects within the human community over the last 12,000 years: from oral cultures to writing, from handwriting to printing, to typewriters, telephones, telegraph, recordings, video imaging, computers and on and on. But oral language already crossed the fundamental threshold. As neuroscientist and evolutionary anthropologist Terrance Deacon points out, language, as a symbol system, belongs to a different order of relational and interpretive complexity than modes of communication. Iconic relationships, such as pictures,  are based on similarities. Indexical relationships, such as smoke and fire, work by consistent association, so that the presence of one can indicate (index) the other.

Both kinds of relationship can turn into communication systems for living creatures. Both ants and immune systems, for example, signal attack by a chemical which is an index invariably interpreted as attack. Words, however, function in a linguistic symbol system, and entail a distinctive, higher order of complexity. Unlike icons and indexes, words relate to both situations and to each other. Thus  part of interpreting language is a matter of the relation of one word to another within a learned grammatical pattern, and the other part is relating the utterance to the situation. Instead of a simple relationship of similarity or association, interpretation becomes a matter of processing the intersection of two sorts of relationships, words with words and words with situation. (Deacon, 69-101).

In one sense, the emergence of symbol as a level beyond icon and index represents the familiar pattern of self-organization, where feedback loops build relationships into relationships of relationships. But, as Deacon explains and examines in detail, linguistic symbol processing is founded on very special organization of vocal equipment, and an even more extensive reshaping of neural organization and processing in the brain. This development itself represents one of those feedback loops in which emergent language organizes a more linguistic brain until it becomes our distinctive feature. Thus Deacon subtitles his book, The Symbolic Species,  with "The co-evolution of language and the human brain."

The threshold crossed when sound becomes  symbol decisively transforms the parameters of experiential learning. Up to this level, experiential learning was relatively  hemmed in by the space/time constraints of the physical world. Memory and imagination serve to allow experience to accumulate to the extent of an individual's lifetime. Communication regarding that experience by means of  signs and signals, however, is constrained by the close relationship of iconic and indexical communication to concrete situations and circumstances. . Words, symbolic communication, flexibly modifies the referents of sounds by means of other sounds/words, freeing communication from the immediacy of any particular situation or personal experience.

This is a critical threshold. By the closing the self-referential loop of being able to refer to and modify themselves, words can craft themselves to refer anything at all, past, present, or future, real, or imaginary, internal or external, self or other.  By language, personal experience becomes community experience, and the product of community experience grows and accumulates over generations and across the boundaries of different communities. Equally important, it becomes the vehicle of what grammarians call the "subjunctive mood," fully capable of carrying forward consideration not just of actual experience, but of what might happen, what could be done. Imagination,  freed from projecting the repetition of past experience, becomes a fully creative architect of never experienced better futures.

This transformed scope of imagination bears close scrutiny.   For living creatures,adapting to circumstances commonly involves a degre of altering those circumstances to meet their needs. But crossing the language threshold allows modifying the world to become our primary adaptive strategy. With this, nature becomes culture, a world of imaginative artifice manufactured on the base of our shared and cumulative learning.

Language thus transforms experiential learning. Evolving as a subordinate strategy that extends the capacity of genetic hard-wiring for the kind of flexible response needed for long and varied lives, coupled with language it becomes a virtually new mode of life. The constraints arising from systemic interdependence become all but invisible when we can imaginatively use our huge accumulation of information to flex around almost any given dependence. In fact, in the context of our cumulative learning and its commensurate strategies, we tend to view most forms of dependence as temporary obstacles to be circumvented and done away with. For example, dependence on plants and animals that grew by themselves has been replaced by dependence upon plants and animals that depend upon us, a new relationship that gives us the illusion that we ultimately depend upon ourselves. In addition to filling the land with "unexpected" plants and animals, this frees our population growth from the systemic restraints that control  the fitting populations of an ecosystem. The power of such apparent liberation is evident; the havoc it can play with the larger life system, and the way those problems feed back to become our problems, we are only beginning to appreciate as we approach the apogee of our success amidst a wave of extinctions.


            Thomas Berry describes the contemporary cultural world as pathological, caught in an addiction to consumption and gratification that is rending the connective tissue of the biosphere. Pathology merits serious attention, for it signifies something more than a casual error. As Gregory Bateson notes, pathologies have deep, systemic, evolutionary roots. In many cases there may be no inherent  difference between a pathology and a healthy drive , except in the evolved systemic context the pathology no longer fits a transformed context and becomes destructive. An addictive pathology  is a behavior we cannot put aside even when it becomes destructive.  .

The dangerous rise in obesity might be taken as presenting a paradigm of our plight. During millions of years humans scrambled for food, and genetic intelligence saw to it that high energy sources such as sugar and fat were imprinted deeply in our  tastes. A keen appetite for the equivalent of french fries and milkshakes provided appropriate guidance for our ancestors as thy roamed the savannas, and the system in which they roamed provided the constraints that kept the appetite fit. Now we roam a fast food marketing environment, where constraints are replaced by calculated appeal aimed at the maximization of those appetites, and the consequences are a health crisis.

Motives evolved as a guidance system that functioned in conjunction with a larger system of constraints.  The advent of symbolic self-reference fundamentally recast this system. In our system of self-conscious manipulation, constraints exist to be overcome, so the relatively stable limits that kept motivation on track have become less and less functional. We  imaginatively engineer   a "better world," restructured in the light of our once functional desires for pleasure, ease, and limitless well-being. And as a final skewing of the system, closing the linguistic loop of self-reference transforms the  arena of spontaneous motivation, opening the way to another loop in which we calculatingly manipulate our own motivation.

The pathological liability comes with linguistic prowess arises from the evolutionary dynamic of three interrelated positive feedback loops. First, the world of desire and motivation, released from predictable environmental restraint, becomes a less and less sure guide, and more and more likely to mislead our creative  imagination. This works in synergy with a second, almost inseparable loop,   the increasing overcoming/ignoring of constraints as we live more and more by cumulative learning under the direction of our communal creative imagination. Everything but our fellow human beings (human resources?)comes to be seen as a malleable environment subject to reworking by our knowledge and prowess.

A third loop feeds both of these and grows exponentially more powerful. Able to contemplate the attractive as attractive, we can utilize it not just as a guide, but in itself as a new way of making a living. Manufactured attraction  has become interwoven with the entire system by which we now make a living as a species, transforming us into "consumers,"--not just organisms that live by an informed energy flow, but organisms caught in a self-created positive feedback loop of ever more consumption.

These three loops, freeing desires from constraints, enclosing humans in an insulated self-referential world of their own manufacturing, and making a living by enlarging the scope of attraction and consumption, have in concert produced an emergent system, "the Economy." The Economy in caps is distinguished from the fundamental process of making a living that is necessary for any living organism. Rather it marks the emergence of the process of consumption and production, Making a (Good) Living, to the status of the central organizing meaning of the cultural system.

The Economy, being inherently pathological,  may prove a very unstable emergence. Motivation, freed from  the imposed constraints within which it evolved, is ever more in need of constraint by conscious information. But the Economy tends to maximize appetite and constrain contrary information. Like any trapped addict, the Economy can look squarely at signs, warnings, and even experiences of destructive consequences and still respond mainly to the appetite to which it is addicted, an appetite that grows by being satisfied.

Those who do heed the counter information hope for another systemic emergence, an Ecozoic era in which the Environment will replace the Economy as the central organizing principle for culture and society.         But the Environment, as a conceptual shadow of the anthropocentric Economy, seems to be the way everything makes a living but humans. We, with our problematic Economy, do not belong among the creatures making their living in the Environment; rather we threaten the Environment, their way of making a living, with our own way of making a living, the Economy. Is their any hope, when push comes to shove, that we will willingly constrain our Economy for their Environment?

Environment as a Dangerous Idea

            At present "environment" is a particularily complex and contested item in the vocabulary of world culture. In many cases, environmental advocacy and economic advocacy generate one another. Embodied in competing interest groups, successful advocacy on one side only inspires more impassioned efforts on the other. In this guise, the Economy and the Environment are mutual systemic concepts, neither able to definitively dominate, but rather through their mutual tension supporting and reproducing a tenuous status quo. To become a truly dangerous idea, i.e. the kind of idea that can displace the status quo and move it to a new level of organization, the environment would have to swallow the economy, becoming womb rather than antithesis.

The Environment has at least the scent, if not quite the substance, of a dangerous idea. Given the complex dynamics of a cultural turning point, the scent may hint at true future possibility.As part of the cultural evolution that gave us the Economy,.

the Environment has emerged in at least two guises. First, the Environment emerges as an important cultural value in a way that is conjoined to the quality of life sponsored by the Economy. The Farm (i.e. the sector, whether urban or rural, that humans directly manage) is now the earth, and wild Nature assumes the status of the portion the farmer decides to preserve as an uncultivated woodlot, buffer zone, or game refuge. "Save our Environment" emerges in part as a marketable consumer quality-of- life issue.  Now that the "war with nature" is over, we can appreciate, learn from, and find new utilities in Nature. We no longer have to push it back  to carve out our Farm. It would be a shame to apply to the whole earth the short-sighted measure of how many bushels it produces for market.

Especially when they sense this tone in the environmental preachments of industrialized nations, third-world nations respond that it is not fair to apply the values of societies already enjoying (and now environmentally expanding on) the good life, to restrict less fortunate societies from their pursuit of the same well-being. When push comes to shove, counting bushels, the Economy, must come first.

            Second, the Environment pushes its way into cultural consciousness as the insistent voice of neglected and distorted systemic relationships. Like most narratives of addiction, the story of our Economy bifurcates into dialectical themes tracing the growth of the addiction on the one hand and the decay of integral life  relationships (the loss of fitness) on the other. The more vigorous our economic expansion,  the more active the feedback from malfunctioning relationships we have willfully or ignorantly disregarded or made low priorities.

At first glance the locus of the Environment in this problematic sense is less Nature than the Farm: smokestacks and exhaust pipes, industrial waste, agricultural and urban runoff, polluted air and undrinkable water. We trace ripple effects into Nature and see them return as feedback loops to the Farm: DDT, CFCs, acid rain, climate change, coral bleaching, collapsing fisheries, invasive species, resistant insects and bacteria. While such phenomena readily feed into Environment as a quality of life concern, they also carry a deeper potential. For in this guise the Environment is not Nature versus the Farm, but nature as the encompassing system of everything. Those who see this face of the Environment emphatically claim that it cannot take second place to the Economy, for the Economy exists within and depends upon the Environment.

These currents of cultural awareness converge and intermingle.  The feelings of pleasure, awe, reverence and affection variously evoked as we enhance our lives by border crossing at the Farm/Nature interface mix with anxiety and fear as we see "our natural resources" erode from under our feet. Eco-tourism, nature shows, camping and backpacking gear, national parks and  wilderness as a political cause, coevolve with deep concern for the all-inclusive life system and our problematic impact upon it. The Environment thus becomes a  shared cultural meaning combining a volatile mix of recreation, religion, and political activism. The combination is neatly reflected when activists motivated by deep commitment to navigating what they perceive as the most critical juncture of evolutionary history are put down as tree-hugging doomsayers from the privileged suburbs.

In this form, the Environment does not qualify as a dangerous idea. The words and exhortations from even holistic environmentalists who understand humans as belonging to the earth are heard and parsed in terms of Nature as everything but the human, the Environment versus the Economy. Worry, concern, or love for the non-human world will never trump worry, concern, and love for the human. Nor should it. And if concern for ourselves gains the wisdom to be concerned for "our" Environment--Arne Naess's "shallow ecology," we will have a wiser, but not evolutionally transformed, society.

The Environment becomes a dangerous idea, a candidate sponsor for deep cultural evolution, only when it is understood as encompassing all life, including us and our consciously informed way of making a living. If the environment includes all us living creatures and the sources from which that living stems, we come home to and belong holistically to the earth, whether we call it Gaia, the Biosphere, or God's Earth. This amounts to a radical shift in human identity.

Identity may at first seem a soft, overly subjective way to approach such a mighty transformation. But identity is systemic before it is personal. Every species has/is an identity stabilized in a transcatalytic loop (see below) involving the co-production of a way of making a living and motivation, i.e. activity and the effective and affective information processes that instruct that activity. Cyanobacteria do it one way, raccoons and possums in others. Humans include a language-apt consciousness in the package. The self-referential awareness that goes with this introduces such flexibility into our co-evolving way of life and the Meaning and Value (our way of processing motivation) that instructs it that some even imagine we arbitrarily construct it all ourselves. From cyanobacteria to humans, however, these co-produced lifeway-motivation identities  co-evolve in a systemic interdependency to which all belong. Identity, what it means to be an x, is no more separable from environmental fit than are the way of life and motivation of which it is composed.

What we are looking for, then, is nothing less than a sweeping modification of the co-produced combination of how we live and how we think/feel about how we live. Because this is so fundamental, those anxious for such a change think in terms of an evolutionary emergence, not just a change in styles.

Evolving Culture

Cultures are as fluid and tenuous as our memories: try as they might, cannot resist change. But deep, systemic modification worthy of the name evolution is far different from slippery cultural memory. If there is such a process, we must look for it, as in biology, in terms of the dynamics of self-organization.

  The language-based information process within which humans exist, with its sticky cross-referencing  accompanied by creeping human mutuality in ways of making a living, can hardly resist self-organizing new identities and greater complexity. Tribes brush against one another and become entangled in relationships of trade, warfare, robbery, intermarriage or whatever. Nomads and traders weave relations across distances among peoples who never see one another. With agriculture comes boundaries,  city-states, federations, empires. Warriors, traders, missionaries, explorers, entrepreneurs spread through the earth. Once self-contained ways of making a living become enmeshed with others; social roles burgeon and differentiate, and a world where all politics was once local comes to have regional, national, and international polity. 

The massive cultural changes involved here resulted in only a few emergent transformations in human identity. In primal societies available identities reflected making a living in close conjunction with the rest of the natural world. Thus we still turn to the religious heritage of such societies when we search to recover a sense of integral fit with the earth. With agriculture came civilization (i.e. urbanization), and the focus of livelihood shifted to social organization. As meaning and value centered on the myriad ways of organizing and legitimating wealth and power, identities became social and political, referenced to human society and its religious analogues where gods were rulers. Technology and industry ushered in the capitalist vision, a positive feedback loop of ever growing production and consumption as what it means to make a human living. Identity gradually disentangles itself from social roles and national allegiance to orient itself to the meaning and value of making a (good) living. Now advertising and mass media work in synergy to supplant politics with standard of living and consumption in our motivation loop, and "consumer" becomes the actual or aspired to identity. 

  Each of these represents an evolutionary emergence, not in the popular sense of progress, but as a new and transformed complex identity emerging as new elements take over the non-linear dynamics of the previous way of (making a) life and its informing motivation. This of course massively simplifies a complex historical evolution in which human societies have not marched in lockstep, nor necessarily followed a common trajectory.  By simplifying, it means to clarify an underlying dynamic pattern. Each emergence takes place in turbulence, each involves a ratcheting up on a scale of complexity, andeach involves reorganization in terms of a complex configuration we might call a  "dangerous idea": agriculture/urbanization, industry/equality/control,  growth/consumption. With each emergence, the former level and its grappling with (making a) living does not disappear, but is transformed by the emergence of the latter. Thus the global Economy (growth/consumption) still must deal with human rights, jobs, agriculture, and the response of the living world. The result of each emergence is both a nested structure and a shift of focus to a new central problematique . . 

The self-organizing dynamics of human cultural evolution must be situated in a larger context in order to locate more than the culturally defined problematique. We have known and presently participate in two great evolutionary processes: the first made of the planet a biosphere, systemically informed by genetic intelligence; the second has made the earth in effect a humanosphere, systemically informed and caught up in conscious, language based intelligence. We may add as background our newfound awareness of cosmic evolution, the matrix within which both these earth evolutions have their place.

  The humanosphere has caught the web of life up in an information process deeply colored by the proclivities of the single language-and-tool using species. This trajectory would transform the plants and animals of the earth into the inhabitants of a great farm, and the mind that runs the farm is even now reaching to take over the information processes of the more ancient genetic mind of the biosphere.

Many now understand this situation as a critical juncture. The genetic mind of the biosphere is compounded of the interwoven informed expectations of millions and millions of species. The language based mind of the humanosphere is compounded of the interwoven informed expectations of millions and millions of members of a single species. Clearly the nature of the learned information that bulks this into an earth-filling mentality does not and cannot encompass the self-organized and fine-tuned interdependence that informs the biosphere. We know that the biosphere can become a great farm only through a process that sacrifices the immense complexity of its own diversity. We have reason to expect that there is a threshold in this simplification process that once transgressed will collapse the system to a new equilibrium at a much lower level of complexity. With reason contemporaries return to the symbolic resources of primal tribes, for at this far end of an ingrown human cultural evolution, the interface with and inclusion in the natural world thrusts itself forward as again a primary reality to be dealt with.

Critical problems, however, typically change cultures, even collapse them, without bringing about cultural evolution. That is the difference between a critical problem and a dangerous idea. As we have seen, modern culture has so far absorbed the environmental problem by fitting it into the conventional anthropocentric human identity in terms of the Economy versus the Environment.

  The power to change culture is one thing, the power to collapse it is perhaps an extension of that power in the form of a challenge to change that cannot be met. Overwhelming and collapsing a stable system is a magnitude question. But evolution is another matter. But how is the stability of a system undercut in a way that leads to an equilibrium of even greater complexity? This is what the dangerous idea accomplishes that the dangerous problem cannot.

The key difference revolves around what systems theorists describe as "transcatalytic" structures, a coproductive dynamic that stabilizes complex systems. Computer modeling has revealed that highly connected (i.e. complex) systems become subject to magnifying random fluctuations with a sensitivity that heads towards chaos. Witness the way fads, fashions, and fears can rumble through the world electronic net.  Complex self-reproductive systems, be they biological or cultural, should thus be highly unstable, subject to takeover by any random variation that resonates with the reproductive dynamics. This is another way of saying such systems should not exist.

The systemic solution is transcatalytic structure, which provides the minimal twist renders  their reproductive dynamics hard to take over. If the reproduction of A involves B and vice-versa, both are insulated from takeover by internal fluctuations. The complex, self-reproducing structure of human culture is so interwoven and stabilized in this fashion that we invented the term gridlock, a word now used mainly to express frustration about resistance to change. Dependence on cars demands an elaborate highway system and an elaborate highway system supports dependence on cars. Certain social relationships help produce addictions, addictions produce the social relationships. The ability to somehow take over both sides of the transcatalytic dynamic makes a candidate for change "dangerous."  As Nobel laureate Illya Prigogine puts it:

"Amplification obviously does not occur with just any individual, idea, or behavior, but only with those that are "dangerous"--that is, those that can exploit to their advantage the nonlinear relations guaranteeing the stability of the preceding regime." (Prigogene, 206)

Identity, as we have seen, is the product of just such non-linear, transcatalytic dynamics. The way we live gives rise to the way we frame our meaning and motivation, and our meaning and motivation inform the way we live.  The loop is largely proof against turbulence that works mainly on only one half. Green practice as a better way to make a buck yields easily to yet better but less green ways to make a buck if deep motivation is not changed. But motivation to save the system to which we all belong is undermined and subject to burnout our earth and respect life often burns out in the face of "real world" practice. The system endures through such fluctuations, just as it endured through the challenges of the 60's and 70's. Changes in cultural styles do not an evolutionary emergence make.

Evolving an  Ecozoic Identity

Isolated fluctuations such as we produce by calculated efforts to change the system may change the style in some portion for some time, but in themselves they are insufficient to drive a cultural evolution. But on the other hand, the same fluctuations that are not "dangerous" in isolation, may work with a a synergy that crosses both sides of the transcatalytic loop, creating a mutually reinforcing positive feedback dynamic that can transform the system.. The more turbulence, the greater the probability of a synergistic looping among factors affecting practice and factors affecting motivation.   We look to a near future in which there is likely to be plenty of turbulence. The difference between collapse and evolution may hinge on unpredictable contingencies of its timing and nature. But even if confident prediction  is impossible, present tangents can be discerned that, in synergy, could move world culture in an ecozoic direction.

Global Warming.   Global warming  may cause dislocations severe enough to create a wave of recriminations and deep distrust for the institutions and methodologies that took us down such a road. At the same time, the varied local/regional consequences could make the limited scope of linear prediction and control as much an assumption of the public mind as technocratic control now is.

China.   A quarter of the world's population, fueled by naïve faith in technology and inspired by the vision of living like America is energetically headed down the runway for economic takeoff. If that takeoff founders under the cumulative weight of environmental atrocities, it  may drive a stake through the heart of the consumer dream that has been the  guiding value of the emergent world system. The Economy has sponsored an unprecedented, coordinated,  global system. Massive systemic inequity has been sustainable in the global system because the world has bought into the plausibility that the economic pie grows larger the more we all consume. Our wealth and consumption becomes your wealth and consumption; just do your part and your turn will come. If government policy within and among nations can no longer be plausibly guided by this model, what will be perceived as the "realistic" alternative legitimation for the international order?

Environmental crisis (cf global warming) may be a serious candidate for framing a new cooperative system among nations. Sustainable ways of making a living, accompanied by a new spin on what it means to "live well," could become critical elements in the culture of governmental self-justification both within and among nations.

A politically monopolar world. This could be considered a systemic amplifier of fluctuations.. The US and the USSR were bound in a mutually stabilizing transcatalytic relationship that ramified throughout the world order. Recall the power of random fluctuations in connected but simple systems. Within the US, we have the emergence of unilateralism, consideration of first use of atomic weapons, proactive intervention across national borders, enlisting citizens to report suspicions of other citizens--these and kindred changes, even in the context of 9/11, mark swings that could not happen while America's government was continually co-creating itself in a reproductive loop with Russia. Internationally,  if the world has resentments, monopolar dynamics focus them on the US, and the US response as it searches for appropriate world leadership is no longer firmly anchored. What will be the response down the road to our high-profile rejection of Kyoto if the weather indeed heats world and US public opinion? What redemptive swing, ushered in by what kind of media blitz, might the US undertake to again lead, not follow the world?  In a monopolar world, the US will have much at stake in navigating the transition from an international order based on the dream of global economic growth. The alternative might be the multiplication of "rogue states" and a permanent "war on terror."

Science and technology. The scientific establishment, the source of the predict-and-control mentality, has now instrumentally wired the globe to track complex systemic change as never before, and the change they track may increasingly be the kind of stuff that newspaper headlines and politics organizes around. At the same time, the model within which these global changes are tracked will need to turn to a complex systems paradigm, undercutting naive prediction and control. All of this will echo through media attempting to explain events to the public.

Education. If we have sown the world with problems, they are being observed in their unfolding with an unprecedented scrutiny that may spin into a positive feedback loop for the kind of systems understanding applied in analyzing and interpreting the data. Such developments may be refracted in our educational systems  as a much more sophisticated  awareness and analysis of complex systems and the non-linear holism of the systems in which we participate.



The fabrication of life. The fabrication of life could loosen the moorings of anthropocentric convictions. In the summer of 2002 scientists announced the fabrication of a virus from "mail order materials.” Viruses do not meet full criteria for being alive, yet they go beyond the performances we expect of the non-living. Fabrication has thus penetrated no-man's-zone between living and non-living. Extending that reach to making a single-celled organism, "life," in the full sense of the term, seems only a matter of time--and perhaps not much longer. In the meantime, the prospect of cloning humans (another matter of time) already upsets our sense of inviolable separateness: the idea that if we can do it with sheep we can do it with humans, jars our assumptions on a deeper level than the ethical conundrums that have served as the public outlet of our anxiety. But revealing  once and for all in the sanctum of our laboratories that "inanimate matter" can be arranged to become animate would put our most fundamental conceptual boundaries in play..

Such a development at first blush might seem to indicate the final triumph of mechanistic manipulation in an utterly soulless (i.e. inanimate) universe  . But the matter cannot rest on that superficial ground. Much  more than the theory of evolution, the fabrication of life would call forth a vast anti-reduction apologetic response from all sorts of religious establishments. The academic world of philosophers, theologians, and systems thinkers is already well populated by thinkers skilled in using evolutionary emergence  to conceptually  reframe phenomena conventionally handled in terms of reductionistic mechanism and naïve materialism. An understanding of systemic emergence-- an approach that allows breathing room for a more profound religious sense of  the meaning of existence--could become a topic for talk shows, op ed pages, chat rooms, and sermons among a populace worried about being reduced, along with the rest of living creatures, to the status of "just a bunch of chemicals." 

We can see then, the potential for the emergence of a more ecozoic identity  in the context of these or similar developments.  A denied or misunderstood reality seems to assert itself when the globe warms, when environmental costs bring down economic development, when probing human intelligence discovers the emergent dynamics of becoming alive. We can  hope that in synergistic concert such developments may  rock the present unstable system into a new equilibrium in which biocentric attitudes and values supplant the myopic anthropocentrism that is now the norm in global culture. 

Hope but not predict. We who already share some version of an embryonic ecozoic subculture read a clear logic in such developments--the logic implicit in the above-mentioned "denied or misunderstood reality."  But if we are, as every facet of capitalist culture reflects back to us, ultimately bounded by self-interest, then however turbulence rocks our culture, collapse is a far more likely future than any alternative.

This brings us to a final consideration of the evolving human reality.   As self-referential manipulators of our own motivation, our meta-motivation (motivation moving our manipulation of motivation)  has evolved in step with the ever increasing scope of interwoven human activity. Over 10,000 years one can discern a gradual shift, as the  institutions through which we critically shape our own motives have moved the fulcrum from religion to politics and now to advertising. We have been caught in a powerful feedback loop in which a  deliberately pumped up desire to consume systemically motivates the motivators who engineer cultural dynamics to inspire yet more consumption. The right kind of turbulence may shake this system deeply, but can our deep motivation on a global scale move beyond the magnetism of self-interest?

Ecozoic Hope

            The current culturally-correct analysis holds that human beings and virtually all other forms of life are fundamentally and systematically self-interested. Evolutionary biology has been interpreted as pointing in a similar direction.  The selfish gene paradigm will allow altruism to flourish within social species, and symbiotic strategies to weave those species together--  in strict proportion to their eventual payoff in enhanced reproduction. Since the information processing at the critical gene pool level is ruthlessly statistical, this conclusion is hard to avoid.

But as we have seen, conscious information processing sifts and selects by feelings, preferences, and proclivities. The success of that processing ultimately ends up in the statistics of the gene pool, which might seem to keep motivation ultimately corralled by reproductive payoff. Except that the self-referential loop introduced with the emergence of symbolic language opens the life of feelings and motivation to selection by reflection. and preference. Even Richard Dawkins, the apostle of the selfish gene, sees that a new potential--one neither analyzed by nor bounded by the dynamics of gene pools--opens at this point. . He concludes his book, The Selfish Gene, with the following quite unexpected observation:

Even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight--our capacity to simulate the future in imagination--could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism--something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world." (Dawkins, 222)

            Of course humans, language, and culture do all have a place in evolutionary nature.        Framing our freedom from determined bounds of self-interest only in terms of the scope opened by the dynamics of self-reference makes it sound like a matter of rational choice, but evolutionary dynamics function on a different level.  Able to contemplate well-being as well-being and others as others, pleasure in and concern for the well-being of others is systemically loosed from the fetters of the selfish gene. "Others" here is an arbitrarily broad category that may include any and all living beings. But are we, at bottom, the kind of creatures that can spontaneously feel pleasure in and concern for the well-being of others. Beyond the logic of the selfish gene, where could such feeling come from? Granted we can reflectively manipulate our own motivation, if that manipulation is at bottom moved only by self-interested fear, there is no ecozoic potential, though cultural style could swing in a more life-friendly direction for awhile. At this point, Christians know we are made for love, so there is hope. Buddhists know compassion for all living beings saturates whatever existence may be, so there is hope. Do steely-eyed, empirically oriented naturalists have any reason for hope?

Perhaps we could refer back to the large picture of cosmic evolution, a huge dispersal in space and time from an original unity, a singularity. The story of evolution is not the story of many pieces getting together to make a system, however much chapters of the story may assume that form under the gaze of our atomistic analysis. The story is rather of unity unleashed in a dynamic transforming whole process of many parts and continuously emerging form. It does not become held together, it is together, so that interactive forces such as gravity are the very condition of discreteness.

Against the backdrop of this large story, we have the story of the stuff of the universe self-organizing into living organisms, motivated organisms, eventually sentient, feeling, mutually responsive organisms. By the sub-story of the dynamics of selfish genes we understand why and how parts emerge and flourish within a larger emerging whole. But about that larger whole, that sub-story is  less eloquent and insightful. The togetherness of life, as the togetherness of the universe, is primordial. Feelings emerge as a new level of responsive relationship among sentient beings. As the ability to reflect upon others and upon wholes emerges and evolves,  this dynamic function of consciousness, which we hardly understand, might, in keeping with the wholeness of the entire evolutionary process, emerge as concern for a more whole well-being.  . It may even be a heading of the process.


            Events may well happen that in synergy rock the stable cultural system that currently aspires to global proportions. The character of those events have the potential to reorient our culturally evolved anthropocentric identity. If culture at this point evolves rather than collapsing, the new system will probably have to stabilize around a way of living and a corresponding motivating frame of meaning and value that encompasses and takes guidance from the entire system of life. Our identity must come home to earth, however we frame the homecoming..

            Events carry lessons. Turbulence invites reconfiguration. But feelings, more than reason and deliberate judgment, are the magnet that aligns culture. As iron filings are jiggled on a paper, they align with the magnetic field. But in this case, our magnetic field systemically evolves: the pattern after new shakeups is not the same. Hunter-gatherers, agrarian civilizations, industrialized societies not only live differently, they feel differently. The compass and scope of the feelings has changed as human culture dynamically entwined into more complex and inclusive systems. We "instinctively" identify with fellow human suffering, where once such feeling might stop with tribe or ethnicity.  In cultural evolution new dimensions of feelings take tenuous hold in a changing system and grow through positive feedback to guide new directions. We have experienced the phenomenon in our own lifetimes in the more limited spheres of gender and ethnicity. The dynamic is familiar enough.

Able to contemplate well-being as well-being and others as others, pleasure in and concern for the well-being of others is systemically loosed from the fetters of the selfish gene. We can identify with and love almost arbitrarily, beyond family, beyond nationality, gender, race, or species. We can be moved by concerns such as justice and fair play, which are not abstractions but realities that become functional when we can think about relationships as relationships. Likewise the contemplation of beauty as beauty emerges, and we become aesthetic as well as instinctive in recognizing and creating new modes of the pleasurable and attractive. These dimensions of the emergent world of culture evoke reverence  and pride.  I suspect they have something to do with why many find the notion of Gaia coming to self-awareness so attractive.


If Gaia did not already have a perfectly good systemic mind of her own, this might be a good idea. Under the circumstances however, it will be evolution enough if our free-wheeling conscious guidance system succeeds in achieving a motivated self-restraint that respectfully, even affectionately, empathizes with the profound systemic mind from which it emerged.