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Nature and Culture Rejoined

Brian Goodwin
Published in Caduceus magazine – September 2006

Boundaries are dissolving rapidly these days. The distinctions between conventional medical practice and holistic therapies, between the arts and the sciences, between scientific and intuitive ways of knowing the world are all shifting as we search for a more unified vision of how to heal the splits and divisions in our culture. One of the most profound of these changes is just beginning to emerge in biology, whose implications involve a complete rethinking of the boundary between nature and culture. This division is often defined by the observation that we humans have written and spoken languages, whereas nature does not. It is certainly true that nature does not use symbols and scripts as we do, so that there is a clear distinction between how we communicate our insights to one another through written texts of various kinds, and nature’s way of leaving historical records. However, at a deeper level it looks like the realm of living nature uses scripts and languages in a manner that is basically similar to what we regard as the unique achievement of humans in creating culture. This realisation is coming from recent work in biology at the fundamental level of trying to understand how organisms use their genetic scripts to make themselves as whole, functional individuals with morphology and behaviour adapted to living in particular habitats or environments.

The process by which an organism of a particular kind makes itself, starting from a fertilized egg or a bud and generating all the complexity of its body form, is called development. We are most familiar with this in humans, where a fertilised egg in the uterus goes through an extraordinary series of transformations to become a baby at term with all its intricate complexity, ready for life outside the mother. In trying to understand this remarkable process, biologists focussed on the information in the genes that plays such a crucial role in the creation of a distinct, individual human being. It was believed that getting this information by determining the sequence of chemicals (bases) that make up the central structure of chromosomes and working out the molecules they produce would allow us to read the genetic text and understand how organisms make themselves.

However, this is a bit like believing that by listing all the words in a text you will be able to read the meaning of the text. What was forgotten or ignored by those who took this view is that the meaning of a text is created by the person who reads it and makes sense of the sequence of words by filling in the many gaps between the words by using his or her practical, embodied experience to make coherent sense out of the word sequence. Furthermore, there are many different meanings that can arise from a single text, a realisation that has produced the subject of hermeneutics, the study of multiple possible meanings from a single text such as the bible or the Dead Sea Scrolls or indeed from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

This has led to the realisation that it is in the nature of written texts to be ambiguous in their meaning. Furthermore, it is this ambiguity that gives to writing its creativity; and of course this is also the case with the spoken word. The creativity of human discourse lies in the ambiguity of words and texts. If every word had a fixed meaning by being rigidly connected to some object or some experience then language would function very differently than it does in human cultures. There are such languages and they are called machine languages, which is an appropriate description. They are what we use in computers to carry out precise operations. Machine languages are excellent for the purpose of reliable, repeatable operations, which is what we want if we are carrying out calculations or we want to determine the logical result of certain propositions. This is the realm of logic, and science makes extensive use of it. In fact, scientists have tended to assume that this is the way nature works: that the laws of nature are organised like machine languages so that there are reliable, repeatable outcomes from certain well-defined situations. And this assumption works well in many situations, such as working out the motions of the planets or the base sequence of chromosomes and what they code for. However, it gives us a mechanical, repeatable universe, not a creative one.

We all know that the assumptions about nature being mechanical and deterministic came badly unstuck in the 1920s when physicists developed quantum mechanics to describe the motions of elementary particles. It turned out that photons, for example, don’t obey our usual assumptions about the natural world. They are not waves or particles but both, being one or the other depending on how we look at them. And they are not localised in space-time, like a little marble in motion. Rather, they exist simultaneously in many possible states and express a particular set of properties depending on circumstances. There is complete consistency in their behaviour; it’s just that their consistency is not what we are used to in the large-scale world of everyday experience. Quantum mechanics describes for us a world of ambiguity that resolves itself into creative behaviour appropriate to circumstance.

I believe that biology is now entering this world of ambiguity as a result of the puzzles arising in trying to understand how genes work. We have assumed that their protein products must interact mechanically, but this is not consistent with the evidence. Different sets of genes can produce an organism of the same type, through various paths and in different time sequences. So there is no rigid, deterministic pattern of gene expression and interaction that is necessary in the development of an organism. On the contrary, there is ambiguity here. A colleague at Schumacher College, Philip Franses, and I call this primary ambiguity.

We have used insights from two Spanish colleagues, Ramon Ferrer I Concho and Ricard Sole, about the basic properties of human languages to show how these biological processes can be understood. They have shown that the ambiguity of language is a result of a compromise between between the effort of a speaker to communicate experience through language and that of a hearer to make sense of the words. Ambiguity thus arises from a principle of least mutual effort that can be described mathematically and has specific consequences regarding the frequencies of different word use in texts. Philip and I have applied this to communication processes in cells, where the same pattern of frequencies of gene products has been observed. Just as in language an intricate pattern of words is used to express a simple, clear meaning that depends on context, so cells arrive at coherent meanings as the appropriate states for the context in which they find themselves in the developing organism. The combination of choices for different meanings initially resolves contextual uncertainties into simple complexity. We are suggesting that expression of primary ambiguity gives biological processes their creativity and is a mark of their intrinsic nature.

The consequence of this proposal is that every species of organism belongs to a culture with a language and a history written in its genes. The members of this culture are the individual organisms of the species, each one distinct because of the ambiguity of the process whereby they are produced. This diversity within the unity of the species is an expression of the intrinsic creativity of living process and the origin of natural creativity in evolution. Different species are then like different cultures with somewhat different languages, but all sharing the same creative process for making themselves. Furthermore, they have solved a problem that we have failed to resolve: they live their lives in a balanced relationship with their environments and with one another. Every organism is energy efficient, recycles all its materials, functions effectively in making a living in its habitat, and is beautiful in its form and its behaviour. Would that we could say the same about humans and our culture, which is wasteful, damaging to the environment, destructive of other species, and generally way out of harmony with others. However, each species as it has evolved has had to learn how to solve the primary problem of living sustainably on earth, and we are in the process of either finding a solution or going extinct. The choice is ours, and we have all the knowledge and technology required to solve our problems. What seems to be most missing is an understanding of human culture and of nature as one process of creative evolution, not our usual separation of humans as distinct, unique, superior products of evolution with some right to organise it for our gratification. Every species is unique and special in its distinctness, just as each human culture is. This we should be celebrating, not destroying.

There is a final consequence of this perspective on the reintegration of humans into the process of continuing natural creativity that I’d like to mention. This relates to animism, archetypes, and mimesis. All traditional cultures have recognised that the creativity of nature is fundamentally mysterious, though with a consistency and an intelligibility that allow for forms of understanding and practical action. Western culture has separated the mysterious from the intelligible, using science to focus on the latter aspects of nature. The result is that we fail to respond with sensitive creativity to the changes that we produce with our actions. We need now to shift our educational focus to cultivate this immediate sensitivity to nature and to place so that we stop damaging our beautiful planet. This education requires the recovery of a sense of the mysterious creativity of the world, the sense that everything is alive and feels its way into patterns of appropriate action, as we do in community with others. This is a form of animism. Furthermore, these patterns of action and expression have generic properties, as do the archetypes of which Jung made us deeply aware. The archetypes are not just in the human psyche, but in the natural world where they come into being as the forms of creation appropriate to different contexts. We need to learn from nature how this happens, and to mimic it in our culture. This is the new mimesis that is now emerging as the roots of a renaissance that can take us from the Industrial Age to an Age of Gaia in which the main role of humans is the continuous celebration of earth’s creative adventure.

For information about short courses involving notions of complexity, Gaia, nature and culture click here

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