Nature is not finished...

The ethnobotany class was treated to a wide ranging and powerful presentation covering the nature and philosophy of science including the world views that underpin the historical choices made. Gordon White, a blogger and podcaster based currently in Australia. In my notes below I have undoubtedly mischaracterized either what Gordon said or what he meant. Although I have had a passing acquaintance with some of matters he spoke upon, he has put together a range of concepts in a way that is wholly unique and new for me. I have been given the gift of much to think about.

Gordon opened with an introduction to world views and the eventual separation of mind from the natural world that began in part with Descartes but perhaps more so with the Cartesian philosophy that took root after Descartes.

He also spoke on the narrowing of what could have agency. Where in the animistic past the realm of things that could have agency was larger, this would be narrowed until only humans were seen as having agency. In the process objects lost their ability to have agency and became inanimate, subject only to algorithms and rules.

Gordon addressing the students

The automatons of the 18th and 19th century were perhaps exemplars of the idea that everything is ultimately only a machine lacking any inherent agency.

The slide shots are by no means a complete set of the images. I was often transported into deep thought by what Gordon presented, a thought stream that at times I did not wish to interrupt to capture the next image.

Thus these screenshots are but an overview of the presentation, an intermittent skim through the general material, occasionally a marker to myself of material I want to pursue in more detail later.

These axioms began to be questioned by some including Whitehead.

That one free miracles is the genesis of matter and energy from nothing at the start of the universe. Then the great clock runs, either as designed by God or by some set of mathematical laws that drive the system along a predetermined and ultimately predictable path.

I knew, however, that by the 20th century quantum mechanics would reveal that the observer cannot be disentangled from the observed. Choices the observer makes alter what is observed. Too, the rigid predictability of Newtonian mechanics was upended by the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. Nothing was certain anymore. Dice were being thrown by the universe. I also know that work done by Stephen Hawking to work out what happened before the bang were problematic - some models appear to be untestable. And that then calls into question whether something that cannot be tested is science. String theory remains a matter of faith at this point.

Western based anthropology could not work with the idea of objects having aliveness, a concept found in many cultures. Some anthropologists realized that no one ontology holds a privileged position, there is not primitive versus advanced ontology. Thus the distinction of natural and supernatural, a Cartesian dichotomy, can be repudiated.

The view that matter is "dead" and not able to be enspirited is just a byproduct of a world view. This returns to forest, rivers, and streams the ability to be magical once again. To see spirits in nature is a choice of worldviews and does not upend or change science per se. Science still operates as expected within its own realm. Or so this is what I think I understood. On this ground I am far from my own home turf. This is the world of anthropology and the debates around ontology and the ontological turn.

The "plasticity" of smartweed is an example where a biological organism challenges the prevailing dogma on rate of evolution. The plant reacts with intent to adapt. This is not the multi-generational process of randomly mutating genes leading to plants with different reproductive success rates. Random mutations are purposeless. The plant is acting with purpose within its own lifetime.

Returning agency to the forest regenerates the forest as living, communicating entity.

Gordon also tackled the issue of invasive species and loss of species. When he notes that nature is not finished, evolution is not a destination but an ongoing journey, he means this as opposed to conservation of what is or was at some arbitrary prior time. To deem some more recent arrival an invasive species is to pick some arbitrary point in time and to try to freeze the garden at that point in time. Yet all plants on the island are invasive: everything arrived here from the first cyanobacteria to the Clidemia hirta. To say Hibiscus tiliaceus is native but Costus speciosus is not native is to pick some point in time and call that an end point beyond which change should not occur.

Gordon also presented information on how invasives actually lead to increased diversity despite species loss. Nature and evolution is an ongoing process, and the moving of plants by people is a part of that process. I am remind of the Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan: perhaps our only real purpose on this planet is to serve plants. To aid in their reproduction and spread. To protect them, weed around the one that have picked us. Of what use is a plumeria tree? A rather non-competitive species that is now safely global in distribution. An invasive but no one calls for plumeria to be removed.

Thus to decide some plants are invasive is effectively an attempt to freeze evolution of an ecosystem.

Gordon cited the loss of birds on Rota despite the absence of the brown tree snake. While the snake was a factor, the snake was also taking the blame for deforestation by people, the use of DDT by people, and the loss of habitat to construction driven also by people.

Green mountain is a reference to Asencion island. Based on the concept that evolution has no finishing point, Gordon cites Green mountain as an environmental success story. The battle of the invasives is simply part of a longer journey of the island's biosphere. That is not, however, the only point of view on the Green mountain Darwinian experiment. Dr. Sam Weber noted recently, "I don't think we'll ever get to the point we could call Green Mountain a fully functioning ecosystem, at least not in the short term - that would take thousands of years."

Yet in the next line is where Gordon and Sam would agree on the statement but disagree on whether that statement represents a problem: "At the moment it's a completely unmanaged mess of invasive species - one after another rises to dominance, others die back." For Sam Weber the ecosystem is too far gone to attempt restoration of the island's degraded environment. "Weber's plan now is to use invasive species as part of a broader strategy, aimed at clawing back over the next century or two some of the mayhem sparked by Hooker and Darwin."

If I understand Gordon, he would argue that Weber is only picking some arbitrary point in the past. The ferns that were "indigenous" also arrived on the wind - they are simply an older invasive. One is left deciding an arbitrary date at which one deems the island to be pristine - as if the island was ever pristine. The original state was as an underwater sea mount - why not restore the island back to being a submerged sea mount? Let the invasives battle it out over the next thousand years. That is the way nature has succeeded for the past 3.5 billion years. Evolution works, let it run, invasives and all. There is no end point, nature is never finished. The story is never ending.

A fascinating and enriching afternoon, as if I were transported to a philosophy of science conference off-island for a period, with much to think about. There is magic in the forests, rocks, and rivers of Pohnpei. Agency happens.


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