When we find our selves in times of trouble, our first response nowadays almost invariably seems to be a rush to find some technological, military or legislative solution that will deliver us from impending doom. We rarely pause to consider what attitude of mind it is that gets us into difficulty, or realise that our resort to engineering, armed force and law and order is itself symptomatic of that attitude. If we did, we might recognise that what is needed primarily is a radical shift in the way we have come to think and feel about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Without this radical shift, all we can do will amount to no more in itself than tinkering with the regulation of an engine that is running dangerously out of control with a headstrong driver in charge.
So it is with the ‘Environmental Crisis’ that has been gathering momentum since the Industrial Revolution. Fueled by the economics of individual or collective self-interest (as per capitalism and socialism) this crisis originates in an attitude of mind that sets us apart from our natural neighbourhood. Einstein epitomised this attitude when he declared that ‘the environment is everything that isn’t me’, as does the Darwinian perception of life as a competitive ‘struggle for existence’ in which only ‘the fittest survive’. Such thinking thinking inevitably puts ‘human’ before ‘world’, when the reality is the other way round. It is rooted in the definitive logic that isolates a numerical or geometric ‘figure’ from the ‘ground’ it naturally inhabits, and continues to be the mainstay of abstract science and mathematics to this day. Our natural neighbourhood is objectified as somewhere outside of us to be controlled and exploited, not cherished as the source of our human existence.
With that ‘me first, environment second’ attitude fixed firmly in mind, the chances of truly caring for our natural neighbourhood as we care for our selves are profoundly compromised. A ‘conflict of interests’ will be perceived between economic, social and environmental concerns, when in reality the former depend on the latter. How often have we heard the refrain that caring for ‘the environment’ costs jobs, instead of recognising that jobs that damage our living space damage us?
Thirty years ago, as a naturalist and biological scientist, I was so bothered by this attitude — and the way it was popularized by ‘Selfish Gene Theory’ and ‘Game Theory’ — that I became determined to find a way out of it. I found myself needing to call into question my own and others’ acceptance of the very idea that life forms are intrinsically and inescapably ‘selfish’ and hence at odds with ‘good neighbourly’ human morality. As Richard Dawkins had put it:- “If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”
The first stage of my enquiry concerned the true nature of living system boundaries. I quickly realized that to regard these boundaries as a definitive source of separation between inner world and outer world made no sense at all. A hermetically sealed boundary prevents the intake of energy from outside to inside upon which life forms depend to ‘go forth and multiply’. It also prevents the transfer of energy from inside to outside upon which life forms depend in order to be active, modify their environmental circumstances and dissipate waste products. The only circumstance in which life forms approach total self-containment arises when they enter a ‘dormant state’ in order to survive adverse external conditions. In other words, ‘self-preservation’ is only possible at the cost of an active life, and to treat life forms or their genes as ‘independent survival units’ governed by an external ‘judge’ or ‘natural selector’ is deeply paradoxical, a product of definitive logic.
In reality, living system boundaries are to varying degrees permeable and deformable depending on environmental circumstances, not absolutely sealed and fixed. As I described in my book, ‘Degrees of Freedom — Living in Dynamic Boundaries (Imperial College Press, 1997), they are ‘dynamic interfaces’ that both distinguish and mediate the receptive-responsive relationship between inner world and outer world upon which biological life depends.
The second stage of my enquiry began twenty years ago when, prompted by some companions, I found myself contemplating the role of natural space in the evolution of living systems. It came to me as an epiphany to realise that here was the frictionless presence or ‘zero-viscosity lubricant and solvent’ needed to enable natural material boundaries to be intrinsically dynamic, not definitively fixed in place and requiring to be forced into motion from outside, as assumed by Newtonian mechanics and definitive logic. Far from being an ‘absence of presence’ or void nothingness putting distance between discrete material objects, it became clear to me that natural space is a continuous intangible presence everywhere, a ‘presence of absence’ or ‘no-thingness’, which is intrinsically receptive to motion.
So now I had two distinct intrinsic presences to consider, not only within biological form but also within the physical reality of all material form: intrinsically dynamic boundaries and intrinsically receptive space. Moreover, it was clear that these two distinct kinds of presence must be mutually inclusive — not mutually exclusive or one and the same thing — if material form is to exist at all. Imagine, for example, an apple, devoid of space: it would have no tangible shape or size. Now imagine space devoid of material form: it would be both endless and featureless — a true void nothingness. But include the space within, throughout and beyond the dynamically bounded form and, behold, you have an apple! Of course, momentarily and from a distance, it might not look like the apple is dynamically bounded, but examine it closely enough (i.e. at atomic scale) or over a sufficient duration between its initial emergence from a fertilized flower and its ultimate ripening and consumption or decay and it becomes clear that it must be.
That is the story in brief of how I personally became aware — or actually re-aware (because I had known it as a child, only to be talked out of it by my objective scientific and mathematical education) — of what I call ‘natural inclusion’. Natural inclusion is the fundamental evolutionary process through which all material form comes into being and diversifies as ‘flow-form’, a mutual inclusion of space and circulating energy in receptive-responsive relationship. It differs radically from the Darwinian perception of ‘natural selection’ as ‘the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’ because it is rooted in a living logic of flow, not a static logic of still life that has to be forced into action.
So began a lengthy exploration of the precedents for and profound implications of natural inclusion for human understanding and flourishing, as well as a long struggle to communicate its meaning and significance within a modern human community deeply entrenched in definitive logic.
But, to return to question I started with:- ‘is it true to say that we are born selfish?’ And the clear answer, on the basis of natural inclusion is a resounding NO! With awareness of natural inclusion our perception of self-identity changes radically from that of a definitively bounded figure isolated from its natural neighbourhood, to that of a dynamic inclusion and expression of its natural neighbourhood. And with that shift comes a chance, ultimately our only chance to stop the engine of human civilisation running out of control and ‘Save Our Souls’ from the iniquities of selfish preoccupation.