Tag Archives: Darwin

Toward A Living Economy: Self-Reliant Local Adaptation

I am exploring the tension between the conservation of natural systems and the need for development to improve the lives of people in poverty. Out of this tension arises the need to transition from our current model which pits these two against each other to another economic system that is not in contradiction to these systems. I am using some ideas from an article by David Korten in which he points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the second.

The second rule, “Self-Reliant Local Adaptation”, values adaptation and local wisdom and knowledge.

The biosphere’s cooperatively self-organizing fractal structure supports a constant process of adaptation to the intricate features of Earth’s distinctive local microenvironments to optimize the capture, sharing, use, and storage of available energy. Local self-reliance is a key to the system’s ability to absorb and contain most system disturbance locally with minimum overall system disruption. So long as each local subsystem balances its consumption and reproduction with local resource availability, the biosphere remains healthy and dynamic.”

This is one of the major implications of Darwinian theory. It’s not just that species adapt, but that they are adapted to very specific local conditions. It’s about the interaction between species and the environment in which they survive and thrive. An economy based on this principle would have to be decentralized, relying on the expertise of local people to make decisions about how they are organized, what changes to make and how to implement them.

Rather than attempting to control the economy from the top down, monkeying with interest rates at the Fed or passing federal legislation, this approach means that the rules must be made in a way that encourages innovation, adaptation, flexibility and change. Unfortunately history seems to say that this runs counter to the whole project of human civilization. The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote into founding documents the idea that the people should get rid of the government and/or change the system when it no longer functioned or served the people. We pretend that we do that every two or four years when we press buttons on a touchscreen or punch a ballot, but the truth seems obvious that rather than change, or revolution, the bureaucratic behemoth continues to gorge itself on the system we maintain by passing the political buck at the ballot box.

I think this principle is best summed up by the word “empowerment” which I have discussed at length in terms of development and my work in Bolivia. Empowerment has some problematic connotations of asymmetrical power relationships, but the idea is still right. If there exists an inequality of power, then those with more power must find ways, not only to relinquish it, but help others learn the proper exercise of it. The knowledge of local and indigenous people that has been devalued in practice for so long must become the most highly prized and important form of knowledge.

This is a major shift in values for the current system. When we begin to truly value local and indigenous knowledge, we will shift our priorities and rewrite the rules to reflect this. In order to live out this principle local communities need autonomy. They must have the power to make decisions for themselves without the intervention of outside forces. This sounds like a new form of tribalism, which is scary for some and hopeful for others.

Outside of the most dire collapse scenario (which I admit could still happen) we will not simply go back to the jungle and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We will, however, be forced to learn, or re-learn, what they knew about how to live in balance with their environment. The reason these kind of communities were and will be stable and secure is their close relationship with their bioregion which makes local adaptation possible. For a civilization used to central control this shift toward decentralization take a huge amount of trust, because we have been sold the narrative that the strong central authority is the only way to hold it all together. The other option, which is what I’ve been describing here, is to stop trying to hold it all together and trust people and communities to know what’s best for them.

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Toward a Living Economy: Cooperative Self-Organization

In the previous post I explored the inherent contradiction between the desire to protect and conserve the environment and the need for development within the current economic system based on a growth economy examining the current political situation in Bolivia as a microcosm of this tension on a macro level. At the end of that post I suggested that the solution was to find a way to transition to a new kind of economy and development. David Korten wrote an article in Yes! Magazine entitled “Living Economies: Learning from the Biosphere” in which he said,

In our species’ immaturity, however, our dominant cultures have forgotten that our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole. We must now step to a new level of species maturity, redesign the culture and institutions of our economic system to mimic the structure and dynamics of the biosphere, and learn to live by life’s rules. 1

Korten lists three key ideas that he gleans from the natural world about how we should organize our economic life together: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. First I want to look at his ideas, along with some others within the idea of a steady-state economy. Then we will have to talk about how to get from here to there.

Toward An Anarchist Economy?
The first rule of “Cooperative Self-Organization” has to do with the principles of biodiversity and cooperation. Korten explains,

Ecosystems have no central control structure. Their health and vitality depend on processes of cooperative self-organization in which each species learns to meet its own needs in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of others. The more diverse and cooperative the bio-community, the greater its capacity to innovate and the greater its resilience in the face of crisis.” 1

The idea of not having central control structures sounds very scary to humans accustomed to all the trappings of civilization with its institutions, organization and hierarchy, but this is an invention of the human intellect and not something inherent in the natural order or observable in natural ecosystems. While many libertarians and advocates of a completely free market profess to believe in such a decentralized state of affairs, I’m not sure they would allow it when the time came to really let go of the control. Most of the more moderate advocates of a free market turn that phrase into a misnomer, because there is incredible attempts to impose central control and regulation on the system. Usually the rules are rigged to the benefit of the rulemakers, which might fit some natural law, but is unsustainable and thus violates the most important natural law: that the system itself must survive.

All of this makes me wonder what an anarchist (which is the leftist version of the libertarian impulse) economy might look like. I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this among Christian Anarchists that I read. But if economy only means how we order our lives together, then in terms of how we exchange goods and services for our own survival, any community of people that is able to sustain itself has some kind of economy. If there is any possibility of a practical anarchism that can be lived out, then there must be some kind of anarchist economics that governs or guides the way that people live together.

Diversity and Cooperation
What creates stability, security and flourishing in ecosystems is diversity and cooperation. Of course there is competition within and among species for sources of food, but this assumes a scarcity that is not the case in stable ecosystems. If you out-compete all the other prey species in an ecosystem for food then your survival will mean that you are now the only target left for whatever predators there are above you on the sacred predator pyramid scheme. There is a delicate web of interdependence in healthy ecosystems that demands both diversity of species and cooperation.

Financial investors already understand this principal somewhat when they diversify stock portfolios to lower the risk and secure a steady rate of return, even if it’s lower than higher risk portfolios. On a broader scale, however, our economy does not support the broadest diversity in terms of the kinds of business and other economic actors that it supports and/or allows to exist. On the contrary the current system heavily favors large corporations. The larger and more multinational the corporation, the more advantages it has in the marketplace.

Everyone gives lip service to small businesses, but no one is serious about taking on the rules that allow Wal-Mart and others to easily put small companies out of business wherever they go. Therefore the rule in a living economy based on the rule of diversity and cooperation would be to give real incentives for small businesses and those that are active in creating a community in which other small businesses can thrive. Korten puts the tension between healthy ecosystems and the privileges of corporations in these terms,

“In a living economy, the rights and interests of living communities of living, breathing people engaged in a living exchange with the natural systems of their bioregion properly take priority over the presumed rights of artificial corporate entities that value life only as a marketable commodity and operate by the moral code of a malignant cancer.”

This puts a further clarification on the practical implications. It cannot simply promote any small business, but small businesses that understand, value and promote the values of diversity and cooperation. They should embody these principles within their own business structures by following worker-owned models in which there is the most possible transparency, openness and sharing of both the rights and responsibilities of honest work. They should encourage other business and the interaction, cooperation and interdependence of businesses of all sizes, from a single person selling produce from their garden to the largest local company in the area.

Monocultures of any kind, whether agricultural or business, are a direct contradiction to principles that govern natural systems. They will likely fail in the long term for the same reasons that natural systems cannot be supported where biodiversity is lacking. The answer is to learn from science and promote the interdependence of natural system that create flourishing, dynamic, vibrant and healthy systems of diversity and cooperation.

Our Changing Relationship With Mother Nature

I often go on and on about our relationship to nature, but Alain de Botton touches on something in a Treehugger article that struck me.

Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of those Wordsworthian daffodils. Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds.

This recognizes how we assume that we relate to nature based on our mythologies, in contrast to the reality of how we really perceive nature and our relationship to it based on how we work things out practically in the real world. If you want to know what people (or societies) believe about something, don’t listen to what they say. Look at what they do and how they spend their money.

I listened recently to a TED talk by Paul Root Wolpe on the ethics of bioengineering. He talks about three phases of evolution. The first phase involved what we have come to understand as Darwinian evolution in which nature does all the work of random mutation, adaptation and selection. When we settled down into agricultural communities we realized that we could speed up this process and manipulate it in order to get traits of plants and animals that we wanted. So, we domesticated animals and selected plants with features that helped us cultivate easier, like large-seeded grains that did not fall off the plant until we harvested them. This second phase of evolution speeded up evolution from something like millions of years to thousands. So, the process was still pretty slow for a long time. However, we have entered what he calls the third phase of evolution in which we are able to actually design lifeforms and manipulate them in ways that do not require the process of Darwinian evolution. Paul Root Wolpe spends most of his talk describing the myriad of ways that scientists now are able to manipulate and use the building blocks and components of organisms and life to create all kinds of technologies and organisms.

One that really blew my mind was taking neurons from a rat which then organized themselves on a microprocessor into a network which was then used to run a computer. One experiment used a computer to monitor and understand the signals in a primate brain that moved its arm. Then the computer mirrored the monkey’s brain pattern to move a prosthetic arm in another room. Finally, the monkey was shown the arm that the computer was moving. Eventually the monkey stopped moving its own arm and was moving the prosthetic arm with his mind, essentially having a third arm that it could control. Another was wiring electrodes into the brains of animals which then made it possible for scientists to control their movements, running rats through a maze basically with a joystick. Wolpe mentions that some students involved in that particular experiment asked whether what they were doing was ethical, overriding and controlling another organism, effectively taking away its autonomy.

Wolpe as an ethicist calls for ethical discussion and consideration of these technologies. The point is that we are now capable of technology and manipulation of our natural environment in ways with which we have not, as a society, fully grappled. When we consider, not what could happen in the future, but what is possible right now, it is clearly true that nature does not terrify us. I wonder, however, if we terrify ourselves. I have close friends who are very confident in both technology and science to basically “do the right thing”. They think that the systems in place and the nature of the scientific community and process will basically take care of these ethical problems that some worry about. As is obvious to any casual reader of this blog, I do not share their confidence.

Our relationship to nature is the most important issue facing human beings today. For the vast majority, the nature of this relationship is simply assumed and goes unquestioned. The idea that we should recycle, change our light bulbs and not throw trash all over the place does not even scratch the surface of our relationship to nature. Yet this is the extent of most people’s probing of our relationship to nature. Until we deal with basic assumptions about what it means to be human and what that has to do with the natural systems that make up our planet, we will continue on a trajectory destined for disaster. As Paul Root Wolpe describes there is a sense in which our relationship to nature has changed dramatically, and we must understand and wrestle with these changes. However, there is another sense in which our relationship to nature does not and cannot change. This final reality will eventually catch up to us if we do need deal with it.

It seems to me that the idea that we perhaps should terrify ourselves relates to the concept of sin, in which we recognize potentialities and possibilities within ourselves that we do not want to realize or which we regret acting on. Sin is often described as brokenness or, better yet, broken relationships with God, other people and the planet. This seems to describe the state of our current relationship to the planet in which we continue to simply ignore the relationship or pursue an unhealthy kind of codependence that necessarily involves mental gymnastics and denial to sustain it.

As with healthy relationships with God and other people, we must first recognize that we are already related to them in some way, even if negatively (e.g. atheists or oppressive systems). Our civilization is designed in many ways to obscure and deny our relationship to the planet. So, the first step is to acknowledge our relationship and dependence. Then we can begin to listen to what we know about how ecosystems work and change our lives and systems to live within these systems rather than exploit, deplete and destroy them.

Reconciling With Darwin

Stephen Jay Gould took on biological determinism, racism, scientific objectivity, scientific progress, science and religion and much more in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History. The primary thrust of this book was to help us come to terms with Darwin and the implications of his ideas for our understanding of ourselves and our world.

The Western world has yet to make its peace with Darwin and the implications of evolutionary theory. The hippocampus debate merely illustrates, in light relief, the greatest impediment to this reconciliation–our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness. (50)

I believe that though there has been progress, this continues to be the case in 2011. This book is primarily about science and conversations within science about Darwinian theory, but it touches on religious beliefs and views in a number of surprising ways. I’ve had an interesting ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine about the relationship and nature of both science and religion. I think this is one of the most important conversations that we need to have, particularly as we are facing the crises of climate change and stretching our natural systems beyond the breaking point. Gould believes that the answer lies in Darwin’s theory itself.

I suggest that the true Darwinian spirit might salvage our depleted world by denying a favorite theme of Western arrogance–that we are meant to have control and dominion over the earth and its life because we are the loftiest product of a preordained process. (13)

This is true for both religious and scientific-minded people, as well as capitalists, economists, Marxists, atheists and almost everyone, but the indigenous peoples of the world. It is a mind set which drives our experiment with civilization, agriculture and technology. Gould claims that this is why Darwin waited so long before publishing The Origin of Species. In that first book he only hints at the implications of his theory and waits until Descent of Man to begin to unpack what this means for our way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to nature. The real scandal of Darwin’s evolution was not that it dethroned the idea of creation. Other evolutionists of the time allowed room for God to simply use evolution instead of creation, as many continue to today.

The real scandal was that Darwin’s explanation of the mechanism by which evolution took place, random variation and natural selection, did away, not only with the need for a Creator, but with the special, exalted place of human beings in the great pyramid of creation. While Darwin does away with a particular notion of God, and I believe rightly so, I don’t see his concept of the human beings creatureliness in contradiction with how I read the Genesis story. Indeed, later on in the book Gould also states,

I return, then, to Linnaeus’s compromise–we are both ordinary and special. The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brains. (257)

I have basically stated the same view at other times. We are no more than creatures, but we are certainly unique among creatures. Gould points out that Darwin intentionally refrained from using “higher” or “lower” terminology to describe lifeforms. Instead, it is clear that prokaryotic organisms are perfectly adapted to their own environment and we would not survive in their place because we are terribly suited to their environment. In another passage Gould puts it this way,

What we criticize in ourselves, we attribute to our animal past…What we prize and strive for, we consider as a unique overlay, conceived by our rationality and imposed upon an unwilling body…Little more than ancient prejudice supports this common belief…It has roots in an attitude that I attack in several of these essays: our desire to view the history of life as progressive and to place ourselves on top of the heap (with all the prerogatives of domination). We seek a criterion for our uniqueness, settle (naturally) upon our minds, and define the noble results of human consciousness as something intrinsically apart from biology. (261)

I have made this same argument many times, not from a scientific perspective, but a religious one, though thoroughly informed by what I know about ecology and agriculture. Now, Gould is an avowed atheist and arrives at his understanding about the world from his knowledge as a scientist. Yet, he refrains from the militant anti-religious zealotry of others by rigorously applying sound principles on both scientific theories and history. He even points out that religious people who held beliefs about the world, which we laugh at now, were sometimes dedicated scientists in their time applying what they knew of science. In his chapter called “The Reverend Thomas’ Dirty Little Planet” he describes the fantastic theories of Thomas Burnet which tried to explain the events described in the Bible, such as Noah’s flood, in rational scientific terms. Writing in 1681 “Burnet’s tale may be fanciful, but his actors are the ordinary physical forces of desiccation, evaporation, precipitation and combustion” (144).
The point here is to remember that our perspective on scientific truth and progress, particularly when reading history, is colored by our current beliefs. This doesn’t mean science has no basis. The reason Gould uses this example is precisely because this religious explanation insisted on rational explanation and was persecuted by the “dogmatists and antirationalists” of his time, not the theists.

But the actual relationship between religion and science is far more complex and varied. Often, religion has actively encouraged science. If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism. (141)

The book is full of interesting stories from the history of scientific thought and development that expound on this theme. Another example was the rationality of beliefs about geologic formation prior to the modern understanding of continental drift. Given the evidence at the time, continental drift was more fantastic than other beliefs held at the time which seem ridiculous now. This leads to one of my favorite lines of the book, that describes the stance that I think both religion and science should take.

Common sense is a very poor guide to scientific insight for it represents cultural prejudice more often than it reflects the native honesty of a small boy before the naked emperor. (109)

I have said often, though perhaps not on the blog, that I don’t believe in common sense. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. Common sense is a nonsensical appeal to non-existent wisdom. Standing before the emperor and being willing to speak aloud the fact that he is naked is no small task for religion or science, because as social creatures we are bent towards conformity. However, we have reached a place where as a species we face the fate of lemmings if we do not speak up.

Throughout the book Gould makes claims about the world and evolutionary theory based on what science can tell us right now (or at least in 1977). Yet the last sentence of the book reveals the kind of stance he takes as a scientist, always willing to be swayed by evidence and never wishing to become an irrational dogmatist.

I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers. (271)

This, I believe, is the humble stance of the human being that is both “ordinary and special”, unique among creatures, but not apart or above in any way. This is the kind of thinking our world needs for its own salvation. Perhaps part of the reconciling work of Christ in our time (for the church) is redeeming Darwin by accepting his ideas as they are and then recognizing them in our own tradition, choosing to reject the ways of thinking and acting in our religions, societies and nations that have led and still lead to domination and violence in all its multiplicity.