Naturen findes

Jorden set fra Apollo 17, 1972

Tænk, at det ikke var sønnen for tre Ã¥r siden, men en have, der nær skulle tage livet af min blog. Men det er altsÃ¥ den, der er grunden til at bloggen har ligget stille i et halvt Ã¥r. Men nu er haven godt i gang, drivhuset, havehuset, terrasse – endda et insekthotel er bygget og grøntsagerne er ved at være høstet.

Samtidig med vi gik i gang med haven, prøvede jeg uden held at fÃ¥ den franske sociolog, videnskabshistoriker og filosof Bruno Latour til landet. Jeg havde fÃ¥et grønt lys fra SMK og lavet aftaler med Golden Days, ambassaden, universitet, kunstakademiet, ITU – alle var mere end interesserede i at Latour herop at tale. Det lykkedes bare ikke. Han takkede nej med henvisning til at have for travlt og det er uden tvivl rigtigt. Han har i øjeblikket gang i et massivt og nærmest altfavnende projekt: AIME eller Modes of existence. Den engelske version af bogen, der hører til projektet An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (pÃ¥ fransk Enquête sur les modes d’existence. Une anthropologie des Modernes er lige udkommet.

I min research fandt jeg Latours seks Gifford lectures, som han holdt i februar i Ã¥r. The University of Edinburgh har lagt de seks foredrag pÃ¥ Youtube. Og Latour har lagt manuskriptet pÃ¥ sin egen hjemmeside. De er stærkt anbefalelsesværdige. Jeg bekender mig uden forbehold til Latours natursyn, og i foredrag nr. tre The puzzling face of a secular Gaia kommer han med en formfuldendt redegørelse for dette. Foredragene virker som en syntese at al hans tidligere arbejde – det jeg kender til i hvert tilfælde, og jeg gætter pÃ¥, at det ogsÃ¥ er det AIME handler om. Jeg venter pÃ¥, at bogen kommer med posten.

Siden vi fik haven, har jeg haft Latours geostory (en af hans neologismer) og hans udlægning af James Lovelocks Gaia-teori i hovedet. Som sagt: Jeg bekender mig Ã¥bent som Gaia-troende – i Latour-version vel at mærke.

Nedenfor et et langt citat fra slutningen af det tredje foredrag, hvor Latour gennemgår Lovelocks argument.

Det korte af det lange er, at Latour ser en parallel i Lovelocks tanker om Gaia til sin egne aktørnetværkteori. Gaia – Jorden – er imidlertid ikke at forstÃ¥ som en stor organisme, det er en senere misforstÃ¥else. Jorden – Gaia er nærmere en osteklokke. Det springende punkt i  Lovelocks argument er, at han tilskriver agency til alle typer livsformer – selv de mindste blip vira. Alle gør, hvad de kan, for at ændre deres omgivelser til at passe dem selv. Dermed er der ikke – og har aldrig været – en ligevægt i naturen. En naturtilstand. Der hersker nærmere en terrorballance, hvor alles forsøg pÃ¥ at gøre deres nærmiljø gavnligt for dem selv resulterer i en kaotisk og uforudsigelig fortløbende situation. “As soon as you extend Darwinism to what every agent does to all the others on which it depends, the calculation of optimization is simply impossible. What you get instead are occasions, chances, noise and, yes, history.” Natur som tilstand, som baggrund, som scene synes dermed at forsvinde. Bogstaveligt talt alt – al materie er en del af denne kæmpeproces, kampplads, kaos: Geostory.

So far nothing is really out of the ordinary. Things get more interesting when this argument is used to extract the notion of cybernetic feedback out of its technological repertoire. Every evolutionist admits that humans have adjusted their environment to suit their needs. It is just that Lovelock extends this technical ingenuity to every single agent, no matter how small. This is not only the case for beavers, birds and termites, but for trees, mushrooms, algae, bacteria and viruses as well. To be sure, this is somewhat anthropomorphic but, as we have seen earlier, what begs for an explanation is not the extension of intentionality to non-humans but rather how it is that some humans have withdrawn intentionality from the living world imagining that they were playing on the planks of an inanimate stage. The enigma is not that there are people still believe in animism, but the persistance of belief in inanimism. Being alive means not only adapting to but also modifying one’s surroundings, or, to use Julius Von Uexküll’s famous expression, there exists no general Umwelt (a term to which we will have to return) that could encompass the Umwelt of each organism.

The point however is not about whether to grant intentionality or not, but about what happens to such an intention once every agent has been endowed with one. Paradoxically, such an extension quickly erases all traces of anthropomorphism and introduces at every scale the possibility of unintentional feedbacks. The reason is that we are not asked to believe in one Providence, but in as many providences as there are organisms on Earth. The sheer result of such a generous distribution of final causes is not the emergence of one overall Final Cause, but a mess, since, by definition, what is true for each actor is also true of all its neighbours. If A modifies B, C, D and X to suit its survival, it is also the case that B, C, D and X modify A in return. It seems that moralists have never looked very seriously at the consequences of the Golden Rule: if ‘everyone does to others what they would like others to do to them,’ the result is neither cooperation nor selfishness, but the chaotic history we are used to, since we live in it. What could be the meaning of a final cause if it is no longer ‘final’ but interrupted at every point by the interposition of other organisms’ intentions? You can follow the ripples of one stone on a pond but not the waves made by hundreds of cormorants diving at once in order to catch fish. By generalizing providence to every agent, Lovelock insures that the providential plans of every actor will be thwarted by many other plans. The more you generalize the notion of intentionality to all actors, the less you will detect intentionality in the whole, even though you might observe more and more negative or positive feedbacks.


So far, Lovelock’s argument is completely compatible with Darwinian narratives since every agent is working for itself without being asked to stop following its own interest ‘for the sake of some superior good,’ which would be the case if there were any dispatcher. But where it adds something to them is in the definition of what it really means for any agent to be ‘for itself.’ For Lovelock and Margulis, taking things literally, there is no environment any more. Since all living agents follow their intentions all the way by modifying their own neighbours as much as possible, it is quite impossible to tell apart what is the environment to which an organism adapts and what is the point where action starts. As Timothy Lenton writes in one of his review articles:
‘Gaia theory aims to be consistent with evolutionary biology and views the evolution of organisms and their material environment as so closely coupled that they form a single, indivisible, process. Organisms possess environment altering traits because the benefit that these traits confer (to the fitness of the organism) outweigh the cost in energy to the individual.’ P440
Such is the origin of the peculiar beauty of reading Lovelock’s or Lynn Margulis’ prose. The inside and outside of all boundaries are subverted. Not because everything is connected in a ‘great chain of being’; not because there exists somewhere an overall plan ordering the whole concatenation of agents; but because this coupling of one neighbour actively manipulating its neighbours and being manipulated by all the others defines waves of action that do not respect any traditional borderlines and, more importantly, that are not happening at a fixed scale. Those waves — Tarde would call them overlapping ‘monads’ — are the real actors which should be followed all the way, wherever they lead, without sticking to the internal boundary of an isolated agent considered as an individual inside an environment. Those waves are, if I may say so, the real brush strokes with which Lovelock hopes to paint Gaia’s face.

Such dissolution of the environment has several important consequences: first it purges Darwinism of its remnant of Providence; but more importantly, it modifies the scale at which evolution occurs; and finally, it redefines deeply what we could mean by natural history. Let me end this lecture with a brief look at those three features.
In the early days of Gaia theory — before the introduction of the Daisy model — , evolutionists complained that it could not be Darwinian because there is no population of planets competing for survival. But such a criticism revealed a telling limit in the way these biologists understood adaptation — a limit deriving from the economic theory they employed to model their biology. In this theory, you have to choose either the self-interested individual or the integrated system — a quandary biologists borrowed from the social sciences. But what is totally implausible in the idea of ‘selfish gene’ is not that genes are selfish — every actor pursues its interest all the way to the bitter end — , but that you could calculate its ‘fit’ by externalizing all the other actors into what would constitute, for a given actor, its ‘environment.’ This does not mean that you have to wheel in a super-organism to which the actors will be requested to sacrifice their goals. It simply means that life is much messier than economists and neo-darwinians want it to be, and that any selfish goal will be swamped by the selfish goals of all the others, making the calculation of an optimum simply impossible. The reason why Darwin’s secular intuition has been so often degraded in a barely disguised version of Providence, is because neo-Darwinians had forgotten that if such a calculation works in human economics it is because of the continuous imposition of calculating devices in order to operate, to enforce, the technical term is to perform the distinction between what a given agent should count and what he should decide not to count. Without those devices, profit would be impossible to calculate and even more to extract from the so-called ‘environment.’ As soon as you extend Darwinism to what every agent does to all the others on which it depends, the calculation of optimization is simply impossible. What you get instead are occasions, chances, noise and, yes, history. What uses to be the environment of an individual actor vanishes.

But the main mistake of evolutionists in their critique of Gaia theory was the wrong idea of how it was supposed to act ‘as’ a whole. We recognize here the same alternation between actors and system that renders human as well as biological societies impossible to grasp. As soon as you abandon the boundaries between the inside and the outside of an agent, you begin to modify the scale of the phenomena you consider. It is not that you shift levels and suddenly move from the individual to ‘the system,’ it is that you abandon both points of view as being equally implausible. This is what happens, as Lovelock and Margulis have shown, when you follow waves of action beyond the boundaries of the cell walls.
One example of such a wave has taken an iconic character in Lovelock’s saga: the sudden appearance of oxygen at the end of the Archean. In this opera, oxygen is a relative newcomer, an event that has destroyed masses of earlier living forms feeding on methane, a massive case of pollution that has been seized by new forms of life as a golden opportunity.
‘Oxygen is poisonous, it is mutagenic and probably carcinogenic, and it thus sets a limit to lifespan. But its presence also opens abundant new opportunities for organisms. At the end of the Archean, the appearance of a little free oxygen would have worked wonders for those early ecosystems. (…) Oxygen would have changed the environmental chemistry. The oxidation of atmospheric nitrogen to nitrates would have increased, as would the weathering of many rocks, particularly on land surfaces. This would have made available nutrients that were previously scarce, and so allowed an increase in the abundance of life’. p. 114
If we now live in an oxygen-dominated atmosphere, it is not because there is a preordained feedback loop. It is because organisms that have turned this deadly poison into a formidable accelerator of their metabolisms have spread. Oxygen is not there simply as part of the environment but as the extended consequence of an event continued to this day by the proliferation of organisms. In the same way, it is only since the invention of photosynthesis that the Sun has been brought to bear on the development of life. Both are consequences of historical events that will last no longer than the creatures sustaining them. And as the citation shows, each event creates for other creatures, later on, novel opportunities.
The crucial point here, it seems to me, is that scale does not intervene because we would have suddenly shifted to a higher point of view. If oxygen had not spread, it would have remained a dangerous pollutant in the vicinity of archeo-bacteria. Scale is what has been generated by the success of living forms. If there is a climate for life, it’s not because there exists a res extensa inside which all creatures would passively reside. Climate is the historical result of reciprocal, mutually interfering connections among all growing creatures. It expands, it diminishes or it dies with them. The Nature of old en days had levels, layers and a well ordered zoom; Gaia subverts levels. There is nothing inert, nothing benevolent, nothing external in it. If climate and life have evolved together, space is not a frame, nor even a context: space is time’s child. This is what makes Lovelock’s Gaia so totally secular: all effects of scale are the result of the expansion of one particular opportunist agent seizing occasions to develop on the fly. If it is an opera, it is one that is constantly improvised and has no end, no rehearsal and no score. This is the polar opposite of James Hutton’s view when he famously said at the end of his Theory of the Earth:
‘We have the satisfaction to find that in nature there is wisdom, system and consistency. (…) The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.’
No prospect of an end, really? For the rocky Earth maybe, for Gaia this is doubtful, for some of its participants, it is far from sure.

If there is no frame, no goal, no direction, we have to take Gaia as the name of the process by which varying contingent occasions have been offered a chance to render later events more probable. Gaia is neither a creature of chance nor of necessity. Which means that it looks a lot like what we have come to take as history itself. Such is the last trait I wish to emphasize.
When we say that Gaia is a ‘historical figure’ we offer the same ambiguity as when we say, for instance, that the Act of Union or Pasteur’s discoveries of microbes are ‘historical.’ The adjective designates simultaneously the event and the narrative of the event. It is well known that historians have a complex relation with the objectivity of their findings that the word ‘narrative’ could either weaken — ‘We are just telling stories’ — or strengthen — ‘We are branching narratives onto what is in itself also a narrative.’ I use the word ‘narrative’ to designate the specific ontology of events that might have unfolded otherwise, events that had no plan, that are not lead by any Providence, journeys that succeed or fail depending on constant retelling and continual  re-evaluation that modifies, once again, their contingent meaning. With this definition, we see how we could move from a narrative of Pasteur’s discovery of microbes — he has a history, they don’t — , to the history of microbes — they have a history too. This is why, when Stephen Jay Gould took such pains to tell the story of the Burgess Shale fossils so as to avoid any teleology — even the one coming from their neo – Darwinist version — , he alluded to Frank Capra’s film with his book title Wonderful Life to suggest how things could have been different for so many lives along the way. You need fiction to tell a somewhat realistic story of what live forms have to pass through. Similarly, if Gaia is to be told through narratives, it is because it is also, in its very fabric, a narrative.
In a piece of work that, by its sheer size, bursts the limit of a scholarly book, Martin Rudwick has shown that when geohistory began to ‘Burst the limits of time’ it was not to escape from the narrow prison of the Church’s teachings. It was, on the contrary, because it began to merge the tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, with the newly developed disciplines of archaeology, digs, historiographical archives and expeditions.
“This book has traced how this novel geohistorical approach has derived from transposition from the human world into the natural both from the profoundly historical perspective of Judeo – Christian religion and from its secular counterpart in erudite human history an antiquarian research. The former, far from being an obstacle to the perception of the immense timescale of geohistory, facilitated the extension of historicity back into the vastness of deep time. And the latter provided the new practice of geohistory with its crucial conceptual metaphors of nature”
As Rudwick shows beautifully, the revolution — and it was a revolution — came once geologists convinced themselves that the planet was notthe result of the eternal laws of nature (their i deal vision of Newton’s achievements) but of highly specific places and dates — something that they could begin to realize by digging, for instance, through the older layers of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption, but that they could also read about in the gospel. To be able to read cosmic events out of minuscule disruptions in the orderly layers of life was something common to the emerging science of geohistory as well as to the deciphering of Incarnation and its complex web of textual emendations. Once intentionality and interpretation are granted to all living creatures, we may understand in a very different manner how ‘the lily could sing the Glory of God’ in more ways than one.‘Nature Two and Religion Two might not be that far apart. ‘Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (Jn-1-46).
Is it possible at last to imagine a secularized science talking about secularized phenomena? How to name this new form of narration? Of course, we could use ‘natural history’ and ‘natural philosophy’ in their old 19th century meaning, but it is hard to extract from the adjective ‘natural’ the poison that Nature — capital N — has injected in it. Feminists have punned on the venerable term of history to create ‘herstory,’ so as to insist on the hitherto unrecognized presence of women’s role in male history. If it is very true that the distribution of agency by male historians about male historical figures ignored most of the feminine actors, it is also true that there has been a great inequality in the distribution of active forces when having human — males and females — strutting on a stage made of what had no history. If we don’t want to use ‘Gaiastory,’ we could use the word ‘geostory’ — better than geohistory — to capture what ‘geostorians’ such as Lovelock are talking about, that is, a form of narration inside which all the former props and passive agents have become active without, for that, being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity.

Have we finally drawn the face of Gaia? No, obviously not. At least, I hope I have said enough to convince you that finding the ‘place of Man in Nature’ — to use an old expression — is not at all the same thing as to narrate the geostory of the planet. By bringing into the foreground everything that used to remain in the background, we don’t expect to live at last in ‘harmony with nature.’ There is no harmony in this contingent cascade of unforeseen events and there is no nature either — at least not in this sublunary realm of ours. But to learn how to situate human action into this geostory is not — such is the crucial lesson — to ‘naturalise’ humans either. No unity, no universality, no indisputability, no indefeasibility is to be invoked when humans are thrown in the turmoil of geostory. You could say, of course, that this rendering is much too anthropomorphic. I hope it is and fortunately so, but not in the old sense of imputing human values to an inert world of mute objects, but, on the contrary in the sense of giving humans — yes morphing them into — a more realistic shape. Anyway, what a strange thing it would be to complain about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism at the time of the anthropocene!

Der er ikke noget naturligt over naturen. Alle agenter omskaber deres ‘miljø’ til deres egen fordel. Der er ikke noget miljø – kun andre agenters forsøg pÃ¥ at ændre deres omgivelser til deres fordel – det er miljøet. Det er naturen. Økologien og historien pÃ¥ en gang.

NÃ¥r jeg har det i baghovedet,  forekommer det mig faktisk meget centralt for det unægtelig komplicerede eller oxymorone i at dyrke en af Amager Fælleds Økohaver pÃ¥ Lossepladsvej (det hedder det bare desværre ikke mere – nu hedder det bare Artillerivej, selv om det grænser til historieforfalskning). Det er ét stor projekt om at omskabe et nærmiljø til vores egne fordele – pÃ¥ mange niveauer. Lige fra lugning og drivhuse – til landskabsarbejdet med at forsegle en losseplads og gøre den til dyrkbar jord – til valget af økologi frem for ‘konventionelle’ dyrkningsmetoder og helt til symbolbetingede livsstilsvalg. Det virker ekstremt kunstigt – men det er mÃ¥ske netop det, der er det naturlige.

Selv helt banale småting, som når jeg står og fylder vandkander og vandtrykket pludseligt falder fordi en af de andre haveejere åbner for en anden vandhane, får hele kæden af miljømodifikationer til at ringe i hovedet på mig. Som et emblem på osteklokke Gaia, hvor vi alle hypper vores egne kartofler og skaber vores natur.