Ecocentrism: What May Be Needed to Save Our Species

How can we restore our heritage of nested, earth-centered living?

Posted Jul 19, 2020

The dearth of virtue in (tested Western) populations has been lamented and assumed to be part of the human condition (Doris, 2002; Miller, 2013) but a natural history indicates otherwise. From a planetary perspective, industrialized humans have become highly destructive in comparison to 99% of human genus existence.

Humanity faces what has been called the four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse (Wilson, 1991), brought about in a matter of centuries: (1) massive toxification of water, air, soil, and food chains (e.g., Diaz et al., 2019); (2) degradation of the atmosphere, such as ozone depletion; (3) global warming (e.g., IPCC, 2014); and (4) the “death of birth”—the extinction of millions of species (Eisner, 1991; Kolbert, 2014). We are entering an unpredictable “hothouse earth” (Steffen et al., 2018).

Why have we reached these crises? One has to take an interdisciplinary approach to figure out the answers. I recently wrote and published the paper, "Ecocentrism: Resetting Baselines for Virtue Development," taking just such an interdisciplinary approach. The paper is a challenge to reset baselines for how we consider virtue and what it entails. Here is a brief summary of some of the main points.

We must understand who humans are, how they become human, and what can go wrong.

First, from ethology, anthropology, biology, and neuroscience, we understand that humans are social mammals who are born particularly immature with a lengthy, decades-long maturational schedule. Early life experience shapes brain function in multiple ways, many of which we hardly understand. But we do know that we are more plastic and epigenetically shaped than our cousins, the chimpanzees (Gómez-Robles et al., 2015), with early life experience influencing emotional development (Meaney, 2001), stress response (Lupien et al., 2009), and much more.

Second, as one of many inheritances beyond genes, humans evolved an intensive developmental niche for raising the young. The common characteristics found around the world in small-band hunter-gatherer communities (our 99%), what my lab calls the evolved nest, include soothing perinatal experience, multiple responsive caregivers, extensive breastfeeding and affectionate touch, positive social support, self-directed free play with multi-aged mates in the natural world, and nature connection.

Third, neurosciences show that evolved nest components support normal development at all levels (e.g., neurobiological, social, psychological), laying the foundations for virtue, which depends on well-functioning systems (Narvaez, 2014).

Fourth, nest components are degraded in industrialized societies. Young children are often denied what they evolved to expect (the evolved nest components), which can undermine species-typical development.

Fifth, studies and accounts of societies that provide the nest, particularly nomadic foragers, the type of society in which humanity spent 99% of its genus history, indicate a more virtuous human nature than people in industrialized societies may think is normal or possible. The adults in these communities are generous, calm, and cooperative (Ingold, 2005).

Sixth, the human nature that emerges from nest-support displays Darwin’s moral sense: social pleasure, empathy, concern for the opinion of the community, habit control, and memory functions allowing comparison of past, present, and future. All these contribute to cooperative behavior, a key aspect of what helped our ancestors survive. But all of these appear to be diminishing in the USA (Narvaez, 2017). 

Seventh, original virtue displayed in our 99% differs from most scholarly writing about virtue. I say:

“Even before the ecological devastation underway, moral theory has often stayed away from discussing very deeply responsibilities to the natural world, perhaps addressing the rights of animals but not much more. Most virtue theories assume hierarchies, with humans (or particular humans) at the top of a pyramid of moral advantages and moral responsibility. But among humans, who evolved to be fiercely egalitarian (Boehm 1999), rigid hierarchy is a recent invention of particular societies, known as civilization, appearing only among some groups in the last 1% of human genus existence.[1] Indeed, civilization and industrialization have had continual battles trying to coerce individuals into abnegating their personal autonomy and submitting to obeying authority (Zerzan 2018).”

[1] Note: Civilizations came and went starting in the last 10,000 years or so. The genus Homo has been around for about 2 million (Fuentes, 2009).

Certainly, virtue is about flourishing—of self and community—but it is also about flourishing in the more than human community, within all circles of life, based in a deep awareness of humanity’s dependence on the rest of nature to survive (Deloria, 2006).

Eighth, the pillars of original virtue include relational attunement (engagement ethic), communal imagination, and respectful partnership with the natural world. All are apparent in human societies that provide the nest to their young, fostering connectedness throughout life. They maintain communal imagination through cultural practices that enhance ecological attachment and receptiveness to the natural world (Narvaez, 2014).

Ecocentric virtue is a human heritage from nested upbringings that enhance our receptivity and connection to the rest of the natural world. People who live in partnership with nature demonstrate capacities to interact respectfully and sustainably with its dynamism (Descola, 2013), even to the extent of living peaceably with predators as first-contact diarists astonishingly noted (e.g., Sale, 1990; Turner, 1994; Spencer, 2018). Much like the traditions of First Nation peoples around the world today, cooperative attitudes towards the natural world maintain the health of the biocommunity.

“The Native American paradigm is comprised of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with spirit” (Little Bear, 2000, p. x).

What can be done to shift back to our original, ecocentric virtue?

Understanding humanity’s past (and alternative present) is one place to start. All our ancestors, even in Europe, lived in partnership with nature until recent centuries. Deepening our sense of humanity’s existence beyond the writings of civilization can help expand our imaginations for what is possible (Narvaez 2019; Small 2008). Provisioning the evolved nest and building and maintaining nature connection throughout life are places to start.

References

Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Descola, P. (2013). Beyond nature and culture (J. Lloyd, trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Díaz, S., Settele, J., Brondizio, E., Ngo, H.T., Gueze, M. Agard, J.,…Zayas, C. (2019). IPBES summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Bonn, Germany: The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Doris, J.M. (2002). Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. New York, NY: Cambridge.

Eisner, T. (1991). Chemical prospecting: A proposal for action. In  F. H. Bormann & S.R. Kellert (Eds.), Ecology, economics, ethics: The broken circle (pp. 196-204). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fuentes, A. (2009). Evolution of human behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gómez-Robles, A., Hopkins, W. D., Schapiro, S. J., & Sherwood, C. C. (2015). Relaxed genetic control of cortical organization in human brains compared with chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 12, 14799-14804. doi: 10.1073/ pnas.1512646112

Ingold, T. (2005). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 399-410). New York: Cambridge University Press.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland,

Kolbert, E. (2014). The sixth extinction: An unnatural history. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Little Bear (2000). Foreword. In G. Cajete, Native science (pp. ix-xii). Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.

Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.

Meaney, M. J. (2001). Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 1161–1192.

Miller, C.B. (2013). Moral Character: An Empirical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2019). In search of baselines: Why psychology needs cognitive archaeology. In T. Henley, M. Rossano & E. Kardas (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive archaeology: A psychological framework (pp. 104-119). London: Routledge.

Narvaez, D. (2017). Are we losing it? Darwin’s moral sense and the importance of early experience. In. R. Joyce (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy (pp. 322-332). London: Routledge.

Narvaez, D. (2020). Ecocentrism: Resetting baselines for virtue development. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.

Shepard, P. (1998). Coming Home to the Pleistocene (Shepard, F.R., Ed.). Washington D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books.

Small, D.L. (2008). On deep history and the brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T.M., Folke, C., Liverman, D.,… Schellnhuber, H.J. (2018). Trajectories of the earth system in the Anthropocene,  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (33) 8252-8259; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810141115.

Wilson, E.O. (1991). Biodversity, prosperity, and value. In  F. H. Bormann & S.R. Kellert (Eds.), Ecology, economics, ethics: The broken circle (pp. 3-10). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zerzan, J. (2018). A people’s history of civilization. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.