Life on earth is doomed, according to the biologist Peter Ward in his new book The Medea Hypothesis. This book is meant to be polemical and provocative; I lack the knowledge to evaluate its particular scientific claims. But just as a thought experiment, it is bracing.
Ward’s book is a critique of the quite popular Gaia Hypothesis, originally developed by James Lovelock, which claims that the Earth as a whole, with all its biomass, constitutes an emergent order, a self-organizing system, that maintains the whole planet — its climate, the chemical constitution of the atmosphere and the seas, etc. — in a state that is favorable to the continued flourishing of life. Essentially the Gaia Hypothesis sees the world as a system in homeostatic equilibrium — in much the same ways that individual cells or organisms are self-maintaining, homeostatic systems. Gaia is cybernetically, or autopoietically, self-regulating system: continual feedback, among organisms and their environments, keeps the air temperature, the salinity of the sea, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc., within the limits that are necessary for the continued flourishing of life.
Ward’s Medea Hypothesis directly contests all these claims. According to Ward, the ecosphere is not homeostatic or self-regulating; to the contrary, it is continually being driven by positive feedback mechanisms to unsustainable extremes. Most of the mass extinction events in the fossil record, Ward says, were caused by out-of-control life processes — rather than by an external interruption of such processes, such as the giant meteor hit which supposedly led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic. The great Permian extinction, for instance — the most catastrophic of which we have knowledge, in which 90% of all species, and 99% of all living beings, were destroyed — was caused by “blooms of sulfur bacteria in the seas,” which flourished due to greenhouse heating and poisoned the oceans and the atmospheres with increased concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, which is extremely toxic.
More generally, Ward claims that life processes have destabilizing effects, rather than homeostatic ones, upon the very environment that they rely upon for survival. This is largely because of the Malthusian basis of natural selection. Traits that give any organism a selective advantage over its rivals will spread through the gene pool, unless and until they overwhelm the environment and reach the limits of its carrying capacity. An organism that is too successful will ultimately suffer a crash from overpopulation, depletion of resources, and so on. The success of sulfur bacteria means the poisoning of all other organisms; or, to give another example, the rise of photosynthetic organisms 2 billion years ago poisoned and killed the then-dominant anaerobic microbes that had composed the overwhelming majority of life-forms up to that time.
Now, biologists in recent years have given careful attention to the evolution of cooperation and altruism as means of averting these dangers. For instance, in an environment of cooperating organisms, a cheater will outperform the cooperators, and through natural selection will eventually drive them into extinction, thus leading to an environment of cheaters who no longer have access to the benefits for all of cooperation. But this prospect can be averted, and altruism can be maintained within a group, if the cooperators evolve mechanisms to detect, and punish or otherwise discipline, the cheaters. Scenarios like this have led to something of a revival of the once-discredited notion of “group selection” (a group all of whose members benefit from cooperation will be able to outperform a group dominated by cheaters).
Be that as it may, Ward does not see any evidence that cooperation or altruism can evolve on a meta-, or planetary, level. He argues, counter-intuitively but with impressive statistical analyses, that in fact the total biomass, as well as the diversity of species, has been in decline ever since the Cambrian explosion. And he suggests that life on Earth is doomed to extinction long before the heating and expansion of the sun make the Earth too hot to live on. The depletion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to the extinction of all plant life, the decline of atmospheric oxygen, the consequent extinction of all animal life, and finally the evaporation and loss to outer space of the oceans, could happen as little as 100 million to 500 million years from now — a span far less than the 1.5 billion or 2 billion years we have before the sun roasts the planet to a cinder. The Earth will end up much like either Venus or Mars — both of which initially had conditions that were favorable to the origin and sustenance of life, but no longer do (in this regard, it would be quite interesting if we were to discover, as has often been hypothesized, that Mars once did have life but no longer does).
Now, even 100 million years from now seems too far off in the future for us to worry about today. And, as Ward points out, our current problems — for the next century or so — have to do with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even if ultimately the Earth will die from too little. Nonetheless (and regardless of whether or not the book’s arguments stand up in their scientific details, which is something, as I already said, that I am unable to judge), Ward’s replacement of Gaia (the good mother Earth) with Medea (the ultimate bad mother, who murdered her own children) makes an important point. In critiquing the Gaia Hypothesis, it is really questioning our contemporary faith in self-organizing processes and systems.
I use “faith” here in as strong a sense as possible. The widespread contemporary belief in “self-organization” is almost religious in its intensity. We tend not to believe any more in the Enlightenment myth (as it seems to us now) of rationality and progress. We are skeptical of any sort of “progress” aside from technological innovation and improvement; and we no longer believe in the power of Reason to dispel superstition and to make plans for human betterment. The dominant ideology in these (still, despite the economic crisis) neoliberal times denounces any sort of rational planning as “utopian” and thereby “totalitarian,” an effort to impose the will on matter that absolutely resists it. This also entails a rejection of “grand narratives” (as Lyotard said in the 1980s), and an overall sense that “unintended consequences” make all willful and determinate action futile.
Instead, we turn to “self-organization” as something that will save us. The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society. Right wing libertarians, meanwhile, see the “free market” as the realm of emergent, spontaneous, self-organized solutions to all problems, and blame disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the current Depression as well, on government “interference” with the (allegedly otherwise self-equilibrating) market mechanism. Network theory, a hot new discipline where mathematics intersects with sociology, looks at the Internet and other complex networks as powerfully self-organizing systems, both generating and managing complexity out of a few simple rules. The brain is described, in connectionist accounts, as a self-organizing system emerging from chaos; today we try to build self-learning and self-organizing robots and artificial intelligences, instead of ones that are determined in advance by fixed rules. “Genetic algorithms” are used to make better software; Brian Eno devises algorithms for self-generating music. Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis is taken by humanists and ecologists as the clear alternative to deterministic and mechanistic biology; but even the harcore neodarwinists discover emergent properties in the interactions of multiple genes. Niklas Luhmann, in his turn, applies autopoiesis to human societies. This list could go on indefinitely.
Now, it is certainly true that many phenomena can be better understood in terms of networked complexity, than in those of linear cause and effect. It is rare for an occurrence to be so isolated that linear models are really sufficient to explain it. And it is also certainly true that unexpected consequences, due to factors that we did not take into account (and in some cases, as in chaos theory, that were too small or insignificant to measure in advance, but that turned out to have incommensurably larger effects), interfere with our ability to make clear predictions and to impose our will. The best laid plans, etc. But still —
I think that we need to question our reflexive belief — or unwarranted expectation, if you prefer — that emergent or self-organizing phenomena are some how always (or, at least, generally) for the best. And this is where Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, even if taken only as a thought experiment, is useful and provocative. Lovelock is almost apocalyptic in his worries about environmental disruption; his recent books The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia warn us that human activity is catastrophically interfering with the self-regulating and self-correcting mechanisms that have otherwise maintained life on this planet. For Lovelock, human beings seem entirely separate from, and opposed to, “nature,” or Gaia. From Ward’s perspective, to the contrary, human beings are themselves a part of nature. Human-created climate change and ecological destruction are not unique; other organisms have caused similar catastrophes throughout the history of life on earth. All actions have “unintended” consequences; these consequences may well be destructive to others, and even to the actors themselves. Presumably bacteria do not plan and foresee the possible consequences of their actions, and discursively reason about them, in the ways that we do; but this does not mean that ecological catastrophes caused by bacteria should be put in a fundamentally different category than ecological catastrophes caused by human beings. [I am enough of a Whiteheadian that I am inclined to think that bacterial actions have a “mental pole” as well as a “physical pole” just as human actions do, albeit to a far feebler extent; there is definite scientific evidence for bacterial cognition.] Rather than separating destructive human actions from “nature”, Ward suggests that “nature” itself (or the organisms that compose it) frequently issues forth in such destructive actions. The mistake is to assume that the networks from which actions emerge, and through which they resonate, are themselves somehow homeostatic or self-preserving. Rather, destructive as well as constructive actions can be propagated through a network — including actions destructive of the network itself.
Of course, on some level we are already aware of this destructive potential — as is witnessed in discussions of the propagation of both biological and computer viruses, for instance. Yet somehow, we tend to cling to the idea that positive self-organization somehow has precedence. And this idea tends to arise especially in discussions that cross over from biology to economics. Both Darwinian natural selection and economic competition tend to be celebrated as optimizing processes. Stuart Kauffman, for instance, the great champion of “order for free,” or emergent, self-organizing complexity in the life sciences, has no compunctions about claiming that his results apply for the capitalist “econosphere” as well as for the biosphere (See his Reinventing the Sacred, chapter 11). The highly esteemed futurist Kevin Kelly, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, has long celebrated network-mediated capitalism, analogized to biological complexity, as a miracle of emergent self-organization; just recently, however, he has praised Web 2.0-mediated “socialism” in the same exact terms.
But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. For Hayek, any attempt at social or economic planning was doomed to failure, due to the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and the consequent prevalence of unintended consequences. In contrast, and inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could. For Hayek, even the slightest degree of social solidarity or collective planning was already setting us on “the road to serfdom.” And if individuals suffer as a result of the unavoidable inequities of the self-organizing marketplace, well that is just too bad – it is the price we have to pay for freedom and progress.
Hayek provided the rationale for the massive deregulation, and empowerment of the financial sector, of the last thirty years — and for which we are currently paying the price. But I have yet to see any account that fully comes to terms with the degree that Hayek’s polemical argument about the superiority and greater rationality of emergent self-organization, as opposed to conscious will and planning have become the very substance of what we today, in Europe and North America at least, accept as “common sense.” Were the anti-WTO protestors in Seattle a decade ago, for instance, aware that their grounding assumptions were as deeply Hayekian as those of any broker for Goldman Sachs?
I don’t have much in the way of positive ideas about how to think differently. I just want to suggest that it is high time to question our basic, almost automatic, assumptions about the virtues of self-organization. This doesn’t mean returning to an old-fashioned rationalism or voluntarism, and it doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that our actions always tend to propagate through complex networks, and therefore to have massive unintended consequences. But we need to give up the moralistic conviction that somehow self-organized outcomes are superior to ones arrived at by other means. We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen “by themselves,” or to arrive “from below” rather than “from above.” (Aren’t there other directions to work and think in, besides “below” and “above”?).
Whitehead says that every event in the universe, from the tiniest interaction of subatomic particles up to the most complex human action, involves a certain moment of decision. There are no grounds or guidelines for this decision; and we cannot characterize decision in “voluntaristic” terms, because any conscious act of will is a remote consequence of decision in Whitehead’s sense, rather than its cause. Decisions are singular and unrepeatable; they cannot be generalized into rules. But all this also means that we cannot say that decision simply “emerges” out of a chaotic background, or pops out thanks to the movement from one “basin of attraction” to another. No self-organizing system can obviate the need for such a decision, or dictate what it will be. And decision always implies novelty or difference — in this way it is absolutely incompatible with notions of autopoiesis, homeostasis, or Spinoza’s conatus. What we need is an aesthetics of decision, instead of our current metaphysics of emergence.