Over the past few months I’ve been doing a lot of reading in one of my favorite areas: paleontology. No, I’m not dying to get geared up for a field assignment, I let other people walk the talk — e.g. Richard Fortey pelted by chill downpours in Scotland as he examines Precambrian schists. I feel enormously grateful that their discomfort yields interesting copy I can read sprawled on the bed in my jammies. To such authors I say affectionately, “Love ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.” 🙂
Books written for the Great Unwashed by Science Guys are really the only way we plebs have of getting insight into what science folk are up to. You don’t come across news of the fossil record in USA Today, for example. When Science Guys write popular science books it’s inevitable that they approach things from the human perspective first — by which I mean science as a human endeavor, a human process. I suppose they think that’s what makes us buy their books. Information on the phenomenon under examination sometimes seems ancillary to descriptions of what Science Guys do and of the great march forward of Science itself. Those points may be valid but a more important point gets lost in that shuffle, in my opinion.
It’s been quipped more than once that in modern civilization science has taken over the role played in the past by religion. I think that’s true. In the past religion formed the primary legitimizing basis for all interpretations of reality. Nowadays scientific proofs — or if the data is skimpy, hypotheses — do that job for the most part, unless belong to some church that has its own story from which you’re not at liberty to diverge. How well the Science Guys do that job depends on what you think about reality. I use the word “reality” with a small “r” to denote the picture of the Universe we humans construct for ourselves. It’s decidedly through a glass darkly, but since we’re the only sentient species on the Planet it’s easy to think we have the last word on Reality with a capital R. We don’t, of course. We never have and we probably never will.
As I digest books by the Science Guys I’m strongly aware of their underlying conviction that any gaps in understanding, any hypotheses wobbly from lack of facts, will ultimately give way to Science as it continues to blaze its path into the future. I suppose that conviction is a necessary self-justification if you’ve devoted the major part of your life to science, but it’s a gimcrack notion because it’s purely ideological, not factual. It’s a notion we dreamed up in the Renaissance — “man is the measure of all things” — and we seem loath to give it up despite understanding more and more how miniscule a part of the Universe we really are.
There’s a very different perspective more in tune with Reality (note the capital “R”). I can’t find a ready name for it despite being a native English speaker whose command of the language is, if I may be permitted a moment of self-congratulation, really rather good. I’ve read tons of stuff in all kinds of disciplines but after plowing through what must by now be hundreds of thousands of pages, no ka-chunk happens in my brain to link the perspective I have in mind with a word or phrase that names it exactly.
The closest description of it I’ve found comes from Virginia Woolf in the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own:
My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay. The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two — the vote and the money — the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important. Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide — a small one but dear to the possessor — perishing and with it my self, my soul — all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart. However, as I say, my aunt died; and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race. It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control … And, as I realised these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves … Indeed my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky.
The approximation in Woolf’s description to the perspective I have in mind is close, “freedom to think of things in themselves,” but she goes in a slightly different direction. We need only tease from the citation its key elements.
The first element involves removing perception from the social fabric so that its foundation becomes detached from any conceptual agendas of a social imprint. To my mind this requires a decontextualization of perception until it proceeds from an awareness stripped bare as much as possible of things extraneous to the object of consideration. This is Woolf’s “seeing things in themselves,” rather than seeing them through the ideological lens of the anthropocentric perspective. Independence is the result of the decontextualization. If one is unconstrained by influence to the greatest degree possible, one becomes reliant on a different basis for assessment and intepretation. One’s thoughts are released from the constricting fabric of the human context — what Professor So and So thinks or doesn’t think, for example, or what this or that agency claims to be the truth of a particular matter — so that thought itself becomes an instrument of magnification without the distortion of preconception.
The second element is tricky because it involves what appears to be a self-contradiction: it’s based on the individual but sidesteps individuality as much as possible. The perspective I’m after must necessarily come from the individual because human consciousness operates only at that level — we aren’t like a hive of bees or a flock of birds plugged into some collective network that guides us as a group, although the role of ideology in human life sometimes makes me think we have that wiring working behind the scenes. But the nature of the perspective I target is impersonal, as if the individuality of the perceiver had been set aside so that what remains is an organ of pure awareness, as much a thing in itself as a rock or a lake or a star. It simply does what it does as a function of its own beingness. That “thingness” (yes, it really is a word 🙂 ) creates a parity with everything else in the Universe perceptible by the instrument of that awareness. Unfortunately this instrumental awareness has one major flaw: its range is extremely limited. Each of us human beings as individuals is immensely limited in relation to the world around us and to the Universe beyond. Part of the ideological distortion of the anthropocentric perspective is self-delusion about that limitation so it seems far smaller than it is in fact. I’m the first to admit that the limitation is lamentable — yet another design flaw in the scheme of Creation. I really must have a word with the Higher Ups after I get past the Pearly Gates. But it’s inescapable in our human state. Accepting that truth is essential to seeing things in themselves from the perspective I describe.
To clarify my point I’ll use an example by the inverse: the book Darwin’s Lost World by Martin Brasier, a British paleobiologist who is no longer with us. His book purports to address the early history of life on the Planet from the Cambrian period backward to the earliest times things lived. At the end of the first chapter my teeth were on edge because I felt like it had been ghost-written by a sports commentator. Instead of facts — hard to come by when you’re talking about the Archaean or the Proterozoic, I realize — we’re offered a barrage of personal anecdotes and postulations which our own powers of concatenation (and endurance) are left to join together. The Science Guys end up being the stars of the show, not the fossils. The evolutionary history of life on the Planet turns out to receive the least amount of attention. Harumph.
That anthropocentric perspective is exactly what I’m NOT talking about. The ideal scenario for someone like me — someone who isn’t a career scientist and doesn’t spend hours every week in a laboratory — is to get the skinny from scientists who pass along just the facts as far as the evidence makes them discernible. I’m not really interested in learning about the professional scuffles or the camping habits of that hominid subspecies called Science guy. I just want the facts. They may be scarce — nobody expects them to be low-hanging fruit — and if that’s the case then just bloody say so and be done with it. As an individual facing the Universe I’m accustomed to bumping up against ignorance — both my own and that of my fellows. Ignorance is in fact the very air I breathe. I don’t need all the stories about what Science Guys get up to in the course of chasing down those facts. And the stories go on and on — Science Guys Do Russia, Science Guys Do China, OMG Our Science Meeting Was So Important — while I wait for some nugget of fact about evolutionary history to flash across my field of vision. But there are no facts, it turns out. I only got a bunch of lousy hypotheses I could have come up with myself. It doesn’t make me feel that I’ve become a better person because I now know far more than I ever wanted to know about the competitive nature of geologists (boys unsurprisingly will be boys) or how big mosquitoes are in the northern Urals. Reading the book was like being trapped on a bus with a bunch of guys from Liverpool going to a football game. Just shoot me.
We can’t be doing with that. That’s reality with a very small “r,” indeed. We’re after the capital R, and all too often when we’re after that particular quarry the Science Guys get us nowhere, fast. So it’s time to make the switch ourselves to The Perspective That Has No Name. For lack of a better term, let’s call it Planetary Perspective. It has a basis in fact, in Reality, I’m not just having a brain quake here. Allow me to explain.
I became a native of this Planetary Perspective gradually, through the experience of spending about four years primarily in the company of the Planet rather than in the throng of my fellow humans. Days — sometimes weeks — would go by where there was just me and the Planet, which led me by stages to shift my perspective away from the human to the Planetary level. As Woolf would put it, I came to think of things in themselves. The cottonwoods near the spring, for example, were nothing but themselves and contained their history in their beingness, as I do myself. The soil under my feet had a long and extremely complex history I could never hope to know in all its detail. We became all on a par — the rocks, the trees, the animals, and me. I was but one fixture in the Big Picture of the Planetary reality around me. My focus during that time concentrated necessarily on what was within readily perceptible range — a limited range because my perception is limited by thenature of my physical beingness. I did research, as well — on botany, geology and paleobotany — in order to understand deeper details of the things around me. The scientific information, however, was only a small aspect of understanding things in themselves. My awareness of them came primarily from direct encounter with their reality through the lens of my own perception.
As I began to consider life on the Planet from that other perspective, the first thing to happen was a radical change in my awareness of myself in proportion to the Big Picture. The history of life goes back billions of years. I’m the result of an evolutionary emergence from the very recent past, which means that nearly all of life on the Planet happened before Homo sapiens sapiens (what a name, beating its breast and yelling like Tarzan) even showed up on the scene. If you own the reality of that fact it becomes immediately clear that humans can’t possibly be the measure of all things, the very notion becomes absurd. We’re very much an evolutionary experiment in progress. What’s more, in relation to the landscape in which I wandered about for some years I was completely inconsequential. From the Planetary perspective humans are a miniscule cog in the evolutionary wheel, not sitting in the driver’s seat. The Planet does the driving. From the way things look now it seems we may well be one of evolution’s dead-ends, unfortunately taking many other species with us as we go down the drain.
During my time living on the land I came to feel like a Hobbit among Ents. If the true proportion of things had kicked in, I’d likely have felt like a bacterium. Things didn’t progress to that point before I had to re-enter the human world and accommodate myself once again to being a member of the “dominant species” (another Tarzan term if ever there was one). The altered sense I gained of our species while living with my focus on the Planet as a whole didn’t disappear when I went back into the human framework. That perspective became the background of my awareness in the human domain, as well. The Reality of the Planet is too massive and became imprinted on my awareness too strongly to disappear when I found myself forced to change context. So back I went into an office for more Death By Cubicle, but the Planetary perspective went with me and stayed with me. It has stayed with me to this day. I consider it permanent.
Our species shares with all others a defining characteristic: we’re self-referential. The trilobites that went belly up in the Permian Mass Extinction long before the dinosaurs were even a glimmer in the Planet’s eye scuttled about the seas doing one thing: being trilobites. They did what trilobites do, then they died. Similarly, despite the sentience on which we humans congratulate ourselves so heartily, we just go about our business being humans, then we die. Instead of scuttling about the seas we drive cars, use cellphones and do Science (ooh la la), but in the final accounting the self-referentiality we exhibit as we go about our affairs is no different from that of any other species.
To my mind, all the evidence points to the likelihood that our sentience runs off our biology like our civilization runs off fossil fuels. To an eye looking with the Planetary perspective that similarity is unmistakeable. We do our own thing and nothing beyond it, if we view our species as a collective. True, there are certain individuals who detach themselves from the general pattern and live differently, but their divergence hasn’t altered the nature of the collective, it simply represents the equivalent of an individual genetic mutation. If you consider the physical course of human history it becomes clear that no major change in the nature of human life at the collective level has happened, which means individual mutations of sentience haven’t brought about any shifts in our evolutionary trajectory. The mutations were dead-ends. We do what all species have done: carry on being what we are without any thought for the Big Picture. The Big Picture has always been in the Planet’s domain and it still is. It always will be. We’ve stuck our fingers into the pie in a big way, but at the end of the day the Planet, not we, will see to the evolutionary trajectory as it has done these past few billion years.
I recently wrote a post on the Sixth Mass Extinction (here) in which I considered that horrific business from a human perspective. If I look at it from the Planetary Perspective, I see that it fits the evolutionary patterns evident in the fossil record. Other species have got out of hand and ended up bringing the environmental house down around their ears — e.g. the cyanobacteria that radically changed the nature of the Planet’s atmosphere by emitting oxygen over billions of years (aka the Great Oxygenation Event, info here, and additionally Banded Iron Formations, info here). We’re unique in using sentience as a tool to throw a spanner in the works, but in the end the results are the same. Observing humanity at the collective level makes it easy to see that the engine of our activity is not a unique destiny deriving from our sentience that sets us apart from (or indeed above) all other lifeforms. What drives us is quite biological and straightforward. Like the cyanobacteria in the Proterozoic we’ve gone hog wild. It’s happened before, it will doubtless happen again. We’re just one more bullet point on that list. I’ve trotted out population statistics in several other posts and here would be a good place to do it again, but I’ll stifle the urge. We all know that the human population continues to grow by leaps and bounds even though it’s a bad idea for the biosphere — which means ultimately that it’s a bad idea for us, too. Does being sentient make any real difference in our behavior as mammals? Apparently not, if we consider the evidence. Sentience is a tool we use to further our own species-interest, not to create a human Big Picture capable of coordination with the Planet’s life trajectory. If we could achieve coordination through sentience with the massive biological intelligence of the Planet we wouldn’t be precipitating a mass extinction event that will inevitably include us in the list of casualties.
The primacy of human consciousness at the individual level has remained a key element of my own life, obviously — I wouldn’t sit here pounding away at the keyboard if that weren’t true. I’m always aware, however, that consciousness is not instrumental as far as my physical life on the Planet is concerned. It’s important to me, but it’s not definitive of what I am biologically. It can’t be, it’s too limited and too ineffectual in terms of physicality. I can’t even achieve present awareness of all the chemical reactions performed by the microbiota in my guts, although I’d be in a world of hurt if they stopped doing their thing. I shouldn’t be surprised, really — sentience is a brand new evolutionary phenomenon so it hasn’t had much time to develop. More’s the pity that it looks like we’re going to tank the experiment before it has a chance really to go places. Given how things are playing out at present, we’ll all be toast long before that can happen.
The historical depth of the Planetary Perspective provides a critical element of awareness. I can look nowhere on Planet now without being aware of the history of the place, whether I know all the specifics of that history or not. As I walked about the land I lived on during the period when I shifted to Planetary Perspective, the present and the historical were always comingled in my awareness. Standing at the top of one of the granite hills around the valley bottom I inhabited, I was aware that the landscape had been constructed by processes I couldn’t possibly know in full detail. I knew that granite is emplaced as a result of tectonics, and I knew that the granite on which I stood was Miocene in age, emplaced because the land where I stood had once been on the edge of a plate boundary where things like granite emplacement and terrane uplift typically occur. I also knew that the hills stand on the edge of a section of the North American Craton, with a history going back billions of years. The craton has scudded around the surface of the Planet like a ball on a pool table, still moving even as I stood on what appeared to my limited perception to be a stationary mound of rock. As I looked out from the hilltop over the conifer forest I knew that the evolutionary history of the trees extended back to the Mesozoic, as much as 300 million years ago. My sentience made not a jot of difference in the environment surrounding me. Biologically speaking I was one tiny element in it, no more, and a newbie to boot. My individual history is so short that on terms of the Planetary timescale I become nugatory.
It may sound like taking on Planetary Perspective might collapse one’s sense of self, but taking it on doesn’t leave me feeling diminished as a human being, it makes me feel more real. There’s nothing to complain about in that state of affairs. Being real is always preferable to being fictitious if you happen to be traipsing about in a body on the Planet. As I stand in a landscape and consider the facts of the situation, finding my humanness reduced to its proper proportions is a welcome experience because it brings me into alignment with the true dimensions of the Reality (notice the capital R) I inhabit on the Planet as a physical being.
Other quite practical shifts come with the adoption of Planetary Perspective, as well. The first is a change in the perception of causality across time. As you stretch your awareness to fit the Planet’s timescale, things on the human scale shrink to their appropriate proportions and it becomes much easier to perceive long-term causality with detachment. Population growth is a good example. From the standpoint of Planetary Perspective human population growth is a no-brainer — of course it’s going to end in disaster. Disaster is what happens with runaway populations, that’s just how things work. So there’s no need to agonize about the worth of the individual, the ability of science to counteract the depredations we visit on the biosphere, etc. etc. You either stop the population growth or you don’t, it’s as simple as that. Our species-level behavior shows no evidence that population growth will change in any near future, so it will continue to lead us down the garden path toward environmental calamity. You don’t need a PhD in evolutionary biology to sort that out.
The second big shift involves becoming conceptually non-reactive to ideologies. Once you adopt the Planetary Perspective, you’re quite squarely Reality-based. In terms of Venn diagrams, you become a circle that has no intersection with the one where human ideologies flourish. Neither do hypotheses cut the mustard. All the justifications and rationalizations we humans use to be comfortable with what we do on the Planet are swept aside because the only thing that counts is the evidence on the ground. Only what we do matters, what we think or believe is of no importance whatever in the Planetary scheme of things. I find that shift very restorative and strengthening. It aligns my awareness with the physical bedrock on which our biology rides. That physicality is the only bottom line any of us have as long as we’re alive on the Planet’s surface.
A third important shift involves the acceptance of uncertainty, a subject important enough to merit its own post (here). Reading popular science books by the Science Guys shows me that we really don’t know very much about a whole lot of things. Planetary Perspective gives up the notion that we can know everything, even that we should know everything. The evolutionary history of the Planet has been going on for billions of years and all that history is encoded in the living things on its surface today. The fact that I have intestinal microbiota — you do too, toots, so don’t think it’s because I have hygiene issues 🙂 — is no different from the relationship between fungi and vascular plants in mycorrhizal associations. It could even be seen as a parallel to the process way back in the evolutionary line that led to the symbiosis of unicelluar organisms underpinning the emergence of the eukaryotic cell with mitochondria. There are still many biological processes in the human body about which we know little or nothing. The Planet, however, has been merrily fomenting biochemical processes on a vast scale for nearly 4 billion years, all of them working a treat. Who’s in the driver’s seat, do you think? And just how extensive in scope is this sentience we think makes us the bee’s knees?
Aligned with the Planetary Perspective I see that I’m continually awash in ignorance. It’s my middle name. I know next to nothing about anything, no matter how much I learn. Moreover, I quickly bump up against things that are essentially unknowable by a creature like me. What was the exact process by which the Planet formed? How exactly did fractionation happen in the early crust? How exactly did the first microorganism appear on the Planet and when? The history of the Planet and of the life on it is a vast wonderment we’ll never know in its totality. As a human adopting Planetary Perspective I acknowledge that fact and live with it comfortably because it’s part and parcel of what I am as a human being. Our species is a new kid on the block and our perceptual abilities (including the range of our sentience) are limited. There’s no possible way we could expand enough to incorporate Reality on the same scale that the Planet produces it — to say nothing of the Cosmos.
The last shift I want to mention is the death of individuality as we know it in the human framework. Planetary Perspective puts paid to that human chestnut in a heartbeat, but not in an act of collapse or erasure. Individuality shrinks radically because of the Planetary vastness — both physical and temporal — in which it exists. I find this a very positive thing that causes no damage whatever at the level of beingness. Human self-importance is a terrible burden, if the truth be told. We’re not up to the job we set ourselves. We pit ourselves against realities we can’t possible deal with adequately. Our failures mount up as the centuries pass, as does the frenzy with which we attempt to explain them away. What a relief to set all that nonsense aside and live with the facts of the matter. That I’ll never know what exactly happened in the Hadean era is not the end of the world. It’s just part of my state of beingness. As such, I have no problem accepting it. That I myself am a member of a species that entered the evolutionary trajectory a measly 200,000 years ago sets the baseline. What can you expect from a newbie like that? We humans have “EXPERIMENTAL” stamped all over us. So it’s a relief to me to accept my probationary status in the biological history of the Planet and to base my perceptions on the truth of that position.
At the end of the day it’s all about Reality, i.e. what’s real outside the human framework. We humans have proven ourselves rather clever at pursuing our own species-interest but we do a crap job of dealing with Reality. We turn away from it again and again, telling ourselves tall tales that have no basis in fact. This penchant for ideological self-deception is one of the least happy characteristics of our sentience. It is wildly dangerous and will be the death of us. It will also be the death of more species than I care to think about. It takes the meaning of the phrase “collateral damage” to a whole new level.
The value of Planetary Perspective has its ultimate proof in the fact that were our human sentience to develop to the point that it embraced all human beings as a collective, it would eo ipso create a perspective capable of comprehending its place in the native order of the biosphere. Only that level of awareness would allow us to function as a species with our sentience synchronized with the Planet’s evolutionary trajectory, which operates as an integrated system. As it is, we’re a bunch of evolutionary rank amateurs making every mistake in the book. We can’t organize ourselves out of a wet paper bag. The Planet would no doubt be laughing uproariously at us if it had the same kind of sentience we have.
Since shifting to the Planetary Perspective some years ago I find it’s become my native stance. It will remain so until I finish my journey as a human being and become myself part of Planetary history. As an individual stance it has everything to recommend it. I count it a great gift from the Planet to have been lifted from the human framework into its own scale of Reality, although I know full well that my perception at that scale is and will always remain sketchy and incomplete. The shift has enriched my life in countless ways and brought to me a perception of my humanity that makes sense for the Planetary Big Picture I inhabit. That’s more than reason enough for me to stick with it until I draw my last breath.