Since childhood, during the summer months, I have often grabbed a book, or the dog, and taken a walk along the Fife coastal path from my home in Inverkeithing to the ruined kirk of St. Bridget’s in Dalgety Bay. I was delighted to discover in the biography Darwin (1991) by Adrian Johnson and James Moore that a while studying at Edinburgh University between 1825-27, one of my heroes Charles Darwin, scoured the area for marine specimens (D, p33).
On a balmy summer afternoon, with flowers in full bloom and a chorus of birdsong permeating the air, dogs frolicking on the beach and amongst the brush, insects crossing my path or fluttering and buzzing around me, rabbits scurrying in the overgrowth and the occasional seal floating contemplatively on the surf, I cannot but feel drawn into their worlds and feel the intensity of their existence confronting my own. Thus, a question that has long concerned me on these ponderous walks is how to account for the subjectivity and novelty that exists in nature.
My interest became more acute after reading The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition (2006) and subsequent books by the New Atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In the preface to the first edition of The Selfish Gene Dawkins writes that ‘We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.’ (SG, pxxi). Later, in conclusion, he adds ‘We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.’ (SG, p201). In his anthropocentric view, only human beings are capable of transcending the purposeless genetic samsara of evolution. This reductionist view of life vitiates nature of experience and creativity. As Robert Rosen stated in his Life Itself (1991), by uncritically approaching nature mechanistically ‘we literally kill life.’ (LI, CH11, P254). Indeed, along with Daniel Dennett, as evolutionary biologists in the era of digital capitalism, their excessive reduction of evolution to algorithms and information transfers is unsurprising.
I’m not alone in the venture to conceptualize a more organic and anti-humanist approach to life and nature.
During the Romantic Era, the absolute idealist Friedrich Schelling recognised the Modernist trend to objectify and mechanize nature with his declaration in his Philosophical Investigations of the Essence of Human Freedom (1809) ‘All modern European philosophy since it began with Descartes has this common defect, that nature does not exist for it and that it lacks a living ground.’ (HF, p27).
In the 20th Century, phenomenologist Martin Heidegger saw objectified or technological thinking towards nature as integral to Western thought from the very beginning. In The Question Concerning Technology (1954) he starkly surmised that ‘The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth. Thus where enframing reigns, there is danger in the highest sense.’ (BWMH, p232). He then quotes Holderlin;
‘But where danger is, grows The saving power also.’
In this essay, through readings of Jacob von Uexkull, the Santiago Theory of Cognition, Merleau-Ponty and Hans Jonas, I will consider more pluralistic and organic conceptions of life that account for its experience and creativity in attempt to restore nature’s living ground.
The Inner World of Animals.
In his Environment and Inner World of Animals (1909) biologist Jacob von Uexkull introduced the term Umwelt. Uexkull defined the Umwelt as the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as a subject. Through observations of ticks, sea urchins, amoebae, jellyfish and sea worms, he was able to build theories of their experience of the world. Because all organisms perceive and react to sensations, Uexkull argued that they should be considered as living subjects, maintaining that ‘According to the physicist, there is only one real world; and this is not the world of appearance, but the world having its own absolute laws, which are independent of all subjective appearance…The biologist on the other hand, maintains that there are as many worlds as there are subjects, and that all these worlds are worlds of appearance, which are intelligible only in connection with the subjects.’ (TB, p70).
Uexkull vindicates this statement with the poetic assertion that ‘the space peculiar to each animal, wherever that animal may be, can be compared to a soap bubble which completely surrounds the creature at a greater or lesser distance. The extended soap bubbles constitutes the limit of what is finite for the animal, and therewith the limit of its world; what lies behind that is hidden in infinity.’ (TB, p42).
The Umwelt is a metaphorical circumscription around an organism within which particular qualities are meaningful and significant, and external to which they are insubstantial or irrelevant; ‘We must therefore imagine all the animals that animate Nature around us, be they beetles, butterflies, gnats, or dragonflies who populate a meadow, as having a soap bubble around the, closed on all sides, which closes off their visual space and in which everything visible for the subject is also enclosed. Each bubble shelters others places, and in each are also found the directional planes of effective space, which give a solid scaffolding to space.’ (FWAH-TM, p69).
Uexkull uses the example of a female hard tick (Ixodes rhitinis), an ecoparasite unpalatable to humans, to illustrate his concept of an Umwelt stating that ‘Out of the enormous world surrounding the tick, three stimuli glow like signal lights in the darkness and serve as directional signs that lead the tick surely to its target.’ (FWAH-TM, p51). Unlike the human, for whom the weather, birdsong, grass swaying in the breeze, and sun glinting off the water is important, ‘The rich world surrounding the tick is constricted and transformed into an impoverished structure that, most importantly of all, consists only of three features and three effects-the ticks environment. However, the poverty of this environment is needful for certainty of action, and certainty is more important than riches.’ (FWAH-TM, p51). Of concern to the tick is a warm-blooded animal upon which it can feed, lay eggs and die.
To compliment the analogy of the soap bubble, Uexkull also utilises musical references to articulate the concept of an Umwelt. While the soap bubble defines the sensory circumscriptions around an organism, the musical trope expresses its relational and interactive projection into the environment.
Uexkull is not consistent in his application of musical terminology, however a conceptual quintet of his musical composition theory can be discerned.
At the cellular level is found a rhythm of self-tones, and with ‘this simple sequence of tones begins the life of every higher animal.’ (FWAH-TM, p152). These ‘self-tones of the living cellular bells are connected with each other through rhythms and melodies, and these are what allow them to sound in the environment.’ (FWAH-TM, p166).
More complex than a rhythm is a melody which is related to the organ functioning. Using the example of an oak tree (Quercus), Uexkull explains that ‘All organ subjects with their organ melodies join together to form the symphony of the organism of the oak, a symphony which on can also describe as the primal stage of the oak.’ (FWAH-TM, p171).
An organism is a symphony composed from the self-tones, rhythms and melodies as ‘Just as the composer of a symphony knows no limits in the choice of instruments he wants to use for his composition, Nature is completely free in the choice of animals it wishes to connect contrapuntally. The rod of the anglerfish is structured contrapuntally to the catching tone schema that is supposed to attract his prey fish.’ (FWAH-TM, p188).
A harmony arises when at least two different organisms interact with each other. It can also be applied to organisms that behave collectively such as in a colony, flock, herd, pack or swarm. To encapsulate his point, Uexkull improvises on a line from Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810) were he ponders ‘If the eye were not sunlike, how could we perceive the light?’. Instead Uexkull asks;
‘If the flower were not bee-like, If the bee were not flower-like, The harmony would never succeed.’ (FWAH-TM, p198).
Finally, a composition is nature understood collectively. However, ‘The impression “composition theory (Lehre) of Nature’ can be misleading, since Nature teaches no lessons at all. One should understand theory, therefore, only as a generalisation of the rules that we think we discover in the study of the composition of Nature.’ (FWAH-TM, p171).
In summary, nature as a whole, its animals and their environments, should be understood as a nexus of interconnected relationships and interactions. An organism is not a lonely song, but a symphony of rhymes and melodies projecting outward into a harmony with other symphonies in the great composition of nature.
Bringing Forth a World.
The Santiago Theory of Cognition was initiated by Humberto Maturana with the publication of his Biology of Cognition (1970) and his subsequent work in partnership with Francisco Varela in their Autopoesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1980).
According to Maturana, cognition is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of autopoeitic networks. That is ‘a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.’ (AC, p79). Thus ‘ Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system.’ (AC, p13, emphasis original).
The Santiago Theory aims to describe cognition in terms of an organism’s interactions with its environment. The particular phenomenon latent in the process of cognition is a structural connection, as autopoeitic organisms undergo continual structural transitions while preserving their nexus patterns of organisation. An organism connects with its environment through recurring interactions which activate structural changes in its system. However the organism is autonomous, with the environment activating, but not designating or directing, the structural changes.
The central aspect of the Santiago Theory is that an organism does not merely specify the structural alterations to its system, but also designates which interactions with the environment activate them. The structural alterations in an organism constitute cognitive acts. By designating which environmental interactions activate structural changes, the organism ‘brings forth a world’ (TK, p29). Thus cognition does not represent an independently existing reality, but a continual bringing forth a world through the very process of living; ‘In a nutshell: to live is to know (living is effective action in existence as a living being).’ (TK, p174).
This radically expanded concept of cognition and mind, which includes behaviour, emotion and perception, does not necessarily require a brain or nervous system. Thus even the humble bacterium brings forth a world with its sense of chemical differences in its environment. These cognitive processes encompass both perception and action as the structural alterations activated in the organism are dependent upon the organism’s structure. In The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991) Varela describes cognition numerous times as ’embodied action’.
Cognition presupposes two intimately connected activities; the conservation of autopoeisis and the bringing forth of the world. An organism is a nexus whose constituents are constantly alternating, being transformed and replaced in response to interactions with its environment. All organisms react differently with each organism developing its own novel solution of structural alterations in its developmental process. This development is a learning process as structural alterations are cognitive acts.
Not every physical change in an organism is a cognitive act. Damage or injury are accidental and therefore not acts of cognition. However, these inadvertent alterations are complemented by cognitive acts, such as an immune system response. Conversely, not all interactions with the environment result in structural changes as the organism only reacts to a small amount interactions affecting them. There are many interactions that don’t initiate structural changes because they are inconsequential to the organism, perhaps outside or beyond their sensual apparatus. In this manner an organism formulates a world according to its own structure in which ‘mind and world arise in enaction’ (EM, p176). Through mutually comprehensible acts of cognition among different organisms, structural connections are formed and they become actors in each other’s worlds, communicating and coordinating their behaviour to bring forth an ecosystem of worlds into the environment.
For the Santiago Theory, cognition is intrinsic to an organism’s environmental interaction. It doesn’t react to environmental incitement in a lineal causal fashion, but responds with structural alterations in its dynamic autopoeitic network. Such a response permits the organism to maintain its self-organisation and to persist in its environment. Thus, intelligence manifests itself in the novelty of an organism’s structural connectivity.
The cognitive domain of an organism is defined by the range of its environmental interactions and as the cognitive domain increases with an organism’s complexity. The possession of brain and nervous system greatly increases the range and diversity of structural connections. At a particular stage of complexity, an organism connects structurally not merely to its environment, but also with its own system, bringing forth an internal Umwelt. In human beings this internal Umwelt is intrinsically identified with consciousness, language and thought.
The Structure of Behaviour.
In The Structure of Behaviour (1961) Merleau-Ponty attempted to ford the explanatory void between consciousness and nature through the notion of form by integrating and accounting for the originality of matter, life and mind. Nature is not purely exterior, but, in the instance of life, has an interior of its own which resembles the mind.
According to Merleau-Ponty, nature cannot be understood in Cartesian terms as pure exteriority. That being ‘a multiplicity of events external to each other and bound together by relations of causality’ (SB, p3). The notion of form then, with Uexkull clearly in mind, is to be understood as ‘no more composed of parts which can be distinguished in it than a melody (always transposable) is made of the particular notes which are its momentary expression’ (SB, p137).
In contrast to Cartesian exteriority, Merleau-Ponty’s interiority incorporates both an organism and its behavioural relationship with the environment. Interiority emerges through organism’s own self-production, or autopoeidic network, and its conversion of energy with the environment required to maintain its staple autonomy. Thus, the emergence of an inside also substantiates an outside. They arise together.
To maintain its staple autonomy, an autopoeidic organism must regulate the flow of energy and matter through its system. This necessitates that such an organism is interactive with its environment. Thus, although interiority and exteriority arise together, the relationship is asymmetical with interiority being ontologically prior.
For Merleau-Ponty, nature must be conceived as having a dynamic and normative inner life, not merely being a mechanism of external casual relations. This line of thinking moves away from Descartes with his decoupling of mind from life, and back to Aristotle where the vital functions of an animate organism are related to the soul (pysche).
The Phenomenon of Life.
In The Phenomenon of Life: Towards a Philosophical Biology (1966) Hans Jonas states that ‘The introduction of the term ‘self’, unavoidable in any description of the most elementary instance of life, indicates the emergence, with life as such, of internal identity-and so, as one with that emergence, its self-isolation too from all the rest of reality’ (PL, p82-83). In other words, an organism affirms its identity by differentiating itself from its environment and therefore demands perspective autonomy.
However, this autonomy does not entail complete isolation from the world. An organism exists in and is a product of the world, with its identity validated in the process of living, of its immersion and compliance with the environment. Or as Jonas describes it; ‘In the process of self-sustained being, the reaction of the organism to its material substance is of a double nature: the materials are essential to it specifically, accidental individually; it coincides with their actual collection at the instant, but it is not bound to any one collection in the succession of instants “riding” their change like the crest of a wave and bound only to their form of collection which endures as its own feat. Dependent on their availability as materials, it is independent of their sameness as these; its own, functional identity, passing incorporating theirs, is of a different order. In a word, the organic form stands in a dialectical relation of needful freedom to matter.’ (PL, p80).
‘In a dialectical relation of needful freedom to matter’ the organism cannot exist outside its environment from which it appropriates resources, with both the organism and environment evolving consequentially from their interaction. However, needful freedom is merely one facet of the dialectic. As a material being, the actuality of an organism correlates entirely with its material composition, but its individuality is not founded upon enduring matter as it’s materiality is perpetually regenerated through metabolism. For Jonas, the metabolic life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of an organism is a guarantee of freedom.
This is a radicalization of Kant’s notion that an organised being is not a mere machine, but possesses the formative power of self-propagation. But whereas for Kant, human beings transcend nature by virtue of their reason, Jonas rejects this duality, stating ‘One expects to encounter the term (“freedom”) in the areas of mind and will, and not before: but if mind is prefigured in the organic form the beginning, then freedom is. And indeed our contention is that even metabolism, the basic level of all organic existence, exhibits it: that it is itself the first form of freedom.’ (PL, p3).
Freedom according to Jonas is ‘a certain independence of form with respect to its own matter.’ (PL, p81) that is attained though metabolic processes. As an inanimate object is incapable of metabolism ‘its duration is mere remaining, not reaffirmation’ (PL, p81). Deprived of metabolism there can be no continuity in development of an organism through material reconstruction. An organism’s individuality is not limited by its material composition, which is in the process of perpetual renewal, but affirmed dynamically by its morphology. As Jonas summarises; ‘This is the antinomy of freedom at the roots of life and in its most elementary form, that of metabolism.’ (PL, p84).
Jonas holds that metabolism is teleologically immanent, as an organism must constantly reconstruct itself as a form amidst the incessant flow of environmental energy and matter. It must perpetuate its identity, regulate its form and control its interactions in accordance with its metabolic system that determines what is beneficial or detrimental to the its preservation. Life is a self-positing process that forges its own identity and interprets the world from the perspective of this individuality. Jonas sees an organism’s natural purpose as the constant reaffirmation of its self in the face of non-being. Jonas relates natural purpose to the self-transcendence of the organism, stating that ‘By the ‘transcendence’ of life we mean its entertaining a horizon, or horizons, beyond its point-identity’ (PL, p85). For an organism to maintain its identity through metabolism it must aim beyond itself and its present condition. This is a radical extension of the possibility for self-transcendence and concern all the way down the great chain of being, of which human existence differs by degree, not in kind.
Conclusion: Life can only be known by Life.
By observing the activity of other organisms striving to persevere in their being, humans can, using evidence from their own experience and the tree of life established by Darwinian biology, perceive the purposefulness and concern intrinsic to all life, as well as, their own place within nature. As Jonas states; ‘At all events, the teleological structure and behavior of organism is not just an alternative choice of description: it is, on the evidence of each one’s own organic awareness, the external manifestation of the inwardness of substance. To add the implications: there is no organism without teleology; there is no teleology without inwardness; and: life can be known only by life.’ (PL, p91).
In the Preface to his Phenomenology of Perception (1945) confronted the objectivism and reductionism of scientific modernity with the prophetic statement that ‘The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression.’ (PP, pxxii/9).
~(D) Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Penguin 1991).
~(SG) The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition by Richard Dawkins (OUP Oxford; 3Rev Ed edition, 16 Mar. 2006).
~(LI) Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin and Fabrication of Life (Columbia University Press, 23 Sept. 1991).
~(HF) Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom by F.W.J. Schelling (SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, 2007).
~(BW) Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger (Routledge Classics, 2010).
~(FWAH-TM) A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning by Jacob von Uexkull (University of Chicago behalf of Minnesota University Press,1 Nov. 2010).
~(TB) Theoretical Biology (1926) by Jacob von Uexkull available at https://archive.org/details/theoreticalbiolo00uexk.
~(AC) Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living by Humberto Maturana Rumesin and Francisco J. Varela (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume 42, 30th November, 1979).
~(TK) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Humberto Maturana Rumesin and Francisco J. Varela (Shambhala Publications Inc; 3rd Revised edition, 13 Aug. 1992).
~(EM) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco J. Varela (MIT Press; revised edition,14 Feb. 2017),
~(SB) The Structure of Behaviour by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Beacon Press, Boston, 1963-PDF).
~(PL) The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Northwestern University Press; New Ed edition, 31 Dec. 2000).
~(PP) Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Routledge; 1 edition, 9 Aug. 2013).