Mindbloggling

Current ideas about cultural evolution and the creative processes that power it.

The Sadness of Potted Plants: Darwinian versus Non-Darwinian Conceptions of Humanity

Are Darwinian perspectives making us more isolated and competitive?

A friend once told me that his earliest memory was of looking at the potted plants in the garden center of a big department store, and feeling devastated because he could sense the sadness of those plants at being separated from the earth and put into their own little containers. I lost touch with this friend long ago, but this story of his earliest memory stuck with me. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that he was anthropomorphizing. But perhaps the reason I was struck by his story was because I had a faint memory of empathizing with potted plants myself. This kind of all-embracing empathy would be difficult to live with in the world we have created for ourselves. We don't just put plants in pots, or put lone fish in fishbowls; we have severed ourselves from the lifestyles of our ancestors and the relationships they had with elements of the natural world. Even if we were born with this kind of all-embracing empathy, by the time we were even old enough to store experiences in long-term memory, it would have caused us so much pain that we would likely become immune to it, like a doctor becomes immune to the sight of gory wounds. For if potted plants really do experience something akin to sadness at being separated from the earth, and if one really could be sensitive to this, the sadness one would feel would be unbearable.

The story of the ‘sadness of potted plants' became a recurring theme for me, manifesting in myriad different ways. As a graduate student I took a course in mathematical biology, and my course project was a mathematical model of the competition amongst roots systems of neighboring plants. It was both fascinating and horrifying to learn what hostile competition takes place underground! I thought sadly that this was an apt metaphor for the collective unconscious, that society teaches us how to isolate ourselves in little pots so that our ‘root systems' don't strangle one another.

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In subsequent biology courses, however, I learned that competition is just part of the story of living things. I learned that uprooting a plant and replanting it elsewhere is stressful for the plant, and that importing non-indigenous plants or animals from other continents can wreak havoc on the established ecological web. (Ironically we are sometimes more cautious about importing plants than about transplanting ourselves.) I learned that Darwin's theory of natural selection is right insofar as it goes, but it falls short. Phenomena such as symbiosis, self-organization, and autopoiesis (in which the whole emerges through the interactions amongst the parts) play an equally important role. The forms and dynamical interactions of living things cannot be explained without recourse to phenomena that operate not through competition and survival of the fittest, but through communal exchange and transformation of all. In other words, through ‘you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'.

In fact, converging lines of argument show that natural selection played no role at all in the evolution of the earliest forms of life. Harvard biologist Kalin Vetsigian, estimates that it took several hundred million years for evolution through natural selection to get established. The technical reasons for this can be found in academic papers by myself and others (e.g. Gabora, 2006; Vetsigian, Woese, & Goldenfeld, 2006); what is of interest here is that although the scientific community has for some time accepted the limitations of Darwinism, the social sciences, not to mention popular culture, still equate non-Darwinian explanations for the forms and dynamics of living things with belief in intelligent design. This is unfortunate, not just because it is scientifically incorrect, but because the belief that evolution occurs exclusively natural selection, an inherently competitive mode of change, has deeply penetrated how we think about ourselves. Competition has become an increasingly pervasive part of human society; it has entered almost every realm of human existence. There is even a competition, taken very seriously, to determine who best executes various yoga poses! And with competition comes isolation, for we tend not to empathize with or reach out to those who are about to clobber us.

Clearly competition has a role to play in our lives, as it does in the roots of plants, though perhaps not as great a role as we think. Perhaps that competition is in service of something deeper: the desire to find where we fit, a sense of community in the ecology of human and earthly existence. I recall a child's book about a robin that falls out of its nest and spends its time going around looking for its mother. There is a particularly poignant picture in which that cute little robin looks up at a huge crane and asks, "Are you my mother?" Perhaps we resonate with this little bird because we yearn to belong, to find not just ‘mother' in the family member sense, but a place under the umbrella of ‘mother nature'. There is nothing in a purely Darwinian conception of who we are that can explain this yearning. In another post I will present the case for a non-Darwinian view of how human culture evolves (or you can read about it on my website, below).

https://people.ok.ubc.ca/lgabora/

 

Liane Gabora, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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