The Selfish Gene is a metaphoric concept developed by Richard Dawkins in the 1970's. Some take this idea literally and this idea has taken root in several academic disciplines including Evolutionary Psychology and even among some individuals working in Evolution.
The concept is naive and reveals the mechanistic thinking that is prevalent in much of Western Science. Its basic assumption is that the ability of genes to replicate themselves is what drives living systems. In reality genes and their actions are buffered by the organism and the process of development which is how organisms actually interact with the changing environmental conditions.
The only data that gives credibility to Dawkin's ideas are the large amounts of non-coding DNA present in many organisms. This DNA may well be replicating itself, but since it does not generate proteins it simply appears to be hitchhiking along with coding DNA that is actually subject to selection on the survival of the individual organism, which does not involve Selfish genes.
The great fault of all ethics hitherto is that they believed themselves to have to deal only with the relations of man to man. In reality the question is to what is his attitude to the world and all life that comes within his reach. A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as his fellow man, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help. Albert Schweitzer (1933, 157-158)
This is a concept that emerges from the Western Philosophical tradition, especially from Plato and Aristotle, who defined politics and ethics as existing only within the human realm.
It is clear that under the Western scientific tradition the concept of an ecological community, i.e. an interacting assemblage of species, is kept distinct from the concept of a social or political community, which consists entirely of human beings that is the preeminent meaning of this term in EuroAmerican cultural traditions.
One of the learning goals for this lesson should be to either introduce or return the reader to an earlier definition of community, one in which human beings are considered to be part of ecological communities and nonhumans are considered to be part of social communities. In the cultural traditions of the Indigenous peoples of North and South America the distinction between social and ecological communities is not clearly delineated. In these traditions, humans regularly have had social interactions and maintained social relationships with plants, animals, and features of the landscape, including rocks, rivers and mountains.
This period seems to have been the time when Western thought turned away from connections to nature and began to emphasize the individual over the group within human society.
This was the time when the concept of land as property and hereditary royalty also appeared, only it was the royalty who owned the property and the idea was that leaders were born rather than made from their people.
This is the roots of materialistic thinking, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
An alternate way of conceiving of the meaning of community can be seen in the belief systems of Indigenous peoples who base their ideas on 1) a different concept of what constitutes "personhood", combined with 2) a tendency to be place or locality oriented such that nonhuman entities that occur in the same ecological area are considered to be more closely related in a functional sense than are unfamiliar human beings.
The Enlightenment gave rise to the Idea of Sustained Development which reflects the faith in human ability to manage nature. Today this concept has been extended to the entire world. Thus environmental policy becomes a political ideal and leads to consolidation of authority (New World Order)
Sustainability is never defined, so the idea of caring for nature, except as a source of natural resources for exploitation, is rarely considered, which leads to economic and environmental disaster
Economists consider long-term continuous growth as sustained, yet this is unrealistic. This can trap tribal governments if they buy into this type of view.
(look at D. Worster 1993. The Wealth of Nature for more detail on this topic)
These traditions were strengthened by the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, which emphasized absolute human autonomy (Peter Coates, Nature 1998). The 17th century scientific revolution did little to change this scenario, in fact, it actually made the situation worse by "transforming nature from a living organism into a machine – simple, unfeeling, inert matter with no intelligence, soul, or purpose – the new mechanistic philosophy assisted the commodification of nature..." The 18th century "Enlightenment" stressed that humans were masters of their own destinies, and emphasized the subjugation of nature (Coates 1998). The Europeans who emigrated to North America during the 17th and 18thcenturies were disciples of this cultural, philosophical, and intellectual tradition.
Given this tradition, it is not surprising that when Europeans came to North America, they regarded the "wilderness" as threatening and hostile. Even the earliest explorers regarded America as a land full of uncontrolled and frightening peoples and animals
According to Vine Deloria (1992, God is Red), temporally based thinking assumes that time proceeds in a linear fashion. Therefore in order to continue to be “right” humans must constantly strive to be “better” than the previous point in time from which we came. In order to learn how to be better, you must study the “mistakes” of the past. Therefore, when temporally oriented individuals encounter cultures which they consider to be “behind the times,” such as Indigenous cultures, they strive to “advance” them. When the “primitives” refuse this help, this means that they fail to make “progress.” As stated by another Lakota scholar, “[the] solution to this lack of ability to coexist with Indians was to locate Indians as far as possible from Euro-American society, out of the way of ‘progress’” (J. Marshall 1995, On Behalf of the Wolf and the First Peoples).
Ultimately the difference between Western and Indigenous perspectives lies in the way in which they approach “truth,” and the understanding of reality: the metaphysics and epistemology of the cultures. Western philosophical traditions which Deloria links to “temporal” thinking, tend to consider truth as universal or global, and independent of the location at which it is defined. One goal of the Western scientific enterprise is to produce truths that are reproducible, again and again, and these truths are assumed to be independent of the location in which they are observed.
The Rationalist tradition established by Bacon, Newton, and Locke asserted that only information provided by measurement and experimentation could provide understanding of phenomena, which implied that science, as defined by the Western European intellectual tradition, was the only legitimate interpreter of the natural world.
The Enlightenment occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which also happened to be the period during which Europeans encountered Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, including North and South America and Australia. There was clearly a difference in the ways in which these cultural traditions saw themselves with regard to the natural world. The European (Western) tradition assumed that humans were meant to be dominant over nature. This is ironic, since it arises from the idea of "dominion" in the first book of Genesis, even though one stated purpose of the Enlightenment was to reduce the power and influence of the church over human thought.
By the middle of the century the scientific community decided to pursue (or at least attempt) a different epistemological direction, setting an ideal of detachment and objectivity.
Science is about nature, but it is also about things, which can only be analyzed, measured, and numbered. They tried to exclude any approaches that bore the taint of personal vision. Thus, scientists refused to accept the Romantic notion of correspondence and its ethic of knowledge because they were unsure what Romantics meant by inner spirit and how that spirit might be related to matter.
Descartes' philosophizing begins with the sentence, "I think, therefore I am." With this miserable, arbitrarily chosen beginning, it finds itself irrevocably committed on the road to the abstract. It never finds the door to ethics and it is caught like a prisoner in a dead world- and life-view. True philosophy must proceed from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness--"I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live." This is not a subtly reasoned dogma. Day by day, hour by hour, I move in it. In every moment of reflection it stands before me anew. A vital world- and life-view that sees into all facts of being bursts continuously forth from it as from never-withering roots. The mysticism of ethical communion with being grows out of it.
Albert Schweitzer, The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer: Jungle Insights into Reverence for Life
Replace in with occupy
Bacon was one of the major advocates for separating humans from the rest of the natural world. His ideas still prevail in much of scientific and Western philosophical ideas.
He was also one of the major forces behind the development of what is considered as the "scientific" tradition.
It is important to keep in mind that he was very interested in this idea of "scientific materialism", which informs much of contemporary economic and philosophical ideas.
Smith was one of the most important voices in establishing the ideas by which modern economic theory was developed. Lived his life largely oblivious of nature, even though he liked to take long walks along the seashore.
Complex figure because he endorsed the expansion of commerce and industry he was basically a humanitarian. Yet he could not conceive that humans owed any obligations to nature.
He talked about "laws of Nature" but he meant "Human nature"
Value is only created through human labor and the transformation of raw materials. Something has value only when and if it serves some human purpose.
It is hard to imagine an individual whose ideas are more different than those of most indigenous peoples.
An issue of concern is that some tribal councils and governments are following Smith's ideas in trying to improve tribal economies.
This Pueblo painting shows the human as a part of a mixed species community.
Worldviews and cultures of Indigenous American peoples evolved in the environments of the continents of North and South America, which means that these peoples came to depend upon the animals and plants of these environments for food, clothing, shelter, and, perhaps most importantly, social companionship. Identification with local plants and animals led to the development of strong ties to these nonhuman lives. "Little emphasized, but equally as important for the formation of [Native] personality was the group of other forms of life which had come down over the centuries as part of the larger family" (Vine Deloria 1990).
The body of knowledge acquired through Indigenous peoples' connection to local nonhumans and careful observation of these other species constitutes much of what Indigenous Americans regard as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). One major theme that emerges from this knowledge is the concept that all things are connected.
The Indigenous knowledge base emerges from an association of interacting populations, which relates conceptually to the Western definition of an ecological community as defined above. It is clear that humans are an integral part of such a community and that interactions between humans and nonhumans can be as significant as those among human beings.
An important example of Western thinking can be seen in the discussion about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The argument made by wildlife biologists and conservationists of European heritage to justify the re-introduction was that of all the species that inhabited Yellowstone when it was first made a park, all but one can still be found living in the park today. The missing species was the gray wolf. This is simply not true; human beings were also regular inhabitants and participants. Shoshone, Arapaho, and other human groups were an important part of that ecosystem. Western conservationists do not consider humans to be a missing component of the Yellowstone ecosystem because Western thought persists in defining "wilderness" as ecosystems without humans present. Western ecologists consider systems where humans are present to be "disturbed," rather than "natural." Humans are regularly removed from areas designated as national parks, forest reserves, and wildlife areas
In this painting by Blackbear Bosin, a Nuhmuh (Comanche) Artist titled "Prairie Fire", the fire is seen to have effects on all members of the community. The antelope and wolves are reacting in the same manner as do the humans.
One reason that the role of Indigenous people as part of their ecological communities is so important is that they do not think of the nonhuman elements of their community as constituting "nature" or as "wilderness," but as part of their social environment.
Native Americans who adhere to this philosophy do not think of leaving a "house" to "go into nature," but instead feel that when they leave their shelter and encounter nonhumans and natural physical features that they are just moving into other parts of their home. "What we call nature is conceived by Native peoples as an extension of biological man, therefore a [Native] never feels 'surrounded by nature.' A [Native] walking in the forest . . . is not in nature, but is entirely surrounded by cultural meanings his tradition has given to his external surroundings"
This drawing by the Cheyenne (Tsitsista) artist Merlin Little thunder is titled "Eyes of a Sleeping Village" and the human is seen as linked to the wolves that also serve as protective spirists within this community.
Contrast this to the idea of wolves and the way they are represented in Western art and literature.
Although Turner refers specifically to the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia, these principles can be applied to other Indigenous groups as well. In fact, I could cite virtually any detailed description of the belief systems of Indigenous Americans and come up with similar principles. The point is that the exact locality where these events occurred is of paramount importance; this sense of locality is what ties Indigenous peoples to their local community in both the social and ecological sense.
Indigenous people view these connections as being very fluid. Any factor that alters a system, including tampering by humans, causes changes in many unpredictable ways. As Turner indicates, each species is constantly fluctuating, both in behavior and numbers, in response to many other species and to physical factors in the environment. Similarly an Osage scholar states: "The cosmos was in constant motion and consisted of unending, varied cycles of birth, maturity, old age, death and rebirth. These temporal cycles could not be stopped or reversed, for 'nothing in the cosmos moved backward" (LaFlesche 1995: 30).
As a consequence of regarding predators as being like humans, almost all Indigenous cultures in the Americas seem to invest hunting with important spiritual and religious traditions. "The Majority of tribal religions look at religion as a healing and balancing process. Healings are a cooperative enterprise between people, animals, and spirits or powers" (Deloria 1999b: 154).
These cooperative or mutualistic relationships between humans and animals underlie the religious and spiritual aspects of hunting for Native American people. One major component of these relationships is respect, which involves maintaining good relationships with the spirit world. . . . Hunters obtain cooperation of the animals they kill by showing respect to their bones and other remains.
The notion of kinship creates a spiritual conundrum for peoples who depend on hunting as a way of life. “Killing animals is a serious business and Kluane people do not engage in it lightly” (Nadasdy 2003: 94). An Inupiat hunter stated that, “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures we have to kill and eat, all those that we strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking their bodies” (Ivaluardjuk, cited in Rasmussen 1929).
If nonhumans were understood to have characteristics similar or equivalent to those of humans, how were humans to understand what it meant to kill animals and consume their flesh? Along with the unpredictability of environmental conditions, this dilemma is one of the defining elements of Native American religious thought. Many rituals and traditions stem from practices developed to provide an ethically satisfying resolution to the taking of other lives. It is not widely recognized, but many contemporary religious practices of Indian people stem from rituals originally developed for hunting.
The materialistic approach is very different from Indigenous attitudes.
Although Western science has converged on Indigenous thinking in many areas, it is still permeated with ideas from the materialistic tradition.
These are examples of metaphors that derive from economic thinking and models that are used in Western science, even in Ecology.
These metaphors are more powerful than many people will admit because they set into people's minds the idea that consumers and producers are part of the natural scheme of things and that all systems, economic and ecological must function according to economic rules.
For further ideas on this topic look at Donald Worster, 1994, Nature's Economy
Such ideas permeate the thinking of western science, which means that economic and social values can inform scientific thinking and concepts.
Darwin was one of the first modern ecologists, yet his ideas and language were swept aside by metaphors that emerged from Locke, Hobbes, and Adam Smith.
Cooperation is very important in nature, but economic thinking and metaphors emphasize competition and struggles between individuals rather than cooperation among individuals even though the latter is much more common in nature.
An example of this can be seen in statements by Shepherd Krech about "waste" resulting from Native American hunting practices. In reality the dynamics of these hunts involved other species who ate whatever humans left so that nothing was wasted in the community.
Waste as defined by Krech means that anything not used solely by humans was wasted.
Resources, including animal populations, soil, water and forests are only properly used when they are "managed" by humans. This can be seen in university degree programs such as wildlife management, fisheries management, and forest management. Once again this implies that being managed only for use by humans is the only proper way for natural systems to function.
This is related to the idea of sustainable and continuous economic growth.
Leda discussio9n about management compared with the concept that animal populations and forests exist on their own terms and have their own reasons for being.
Again, Darwin emphasized the limits to growth and to population size, and these ideas have been emphasized by individuals like Paul Ehrlich.
Instead the idea was hijacked and turned into Social Darwinism and the idea that economic growth is unlimited.
This assumes that new resources will always be found and exploited to allow for the continued growth.
Scientists, especially from England bought into the ideas and metaphors from economics as a useful way to characterize natural systems.
This is always the danger in the use of metaphors, i.e. the idea that the metaphor actually describes reality and how it functions.
This leads people to think that human economics operate by the same rules as ecological systems. This is clearly not true and has led Western science down some very unpromising pathways.
A book that explores this theme is Richard Lewontin 2000. The Triple Helix, Harvard University Press.
It is important to emphasize that this metaphor is quite different than the concept of balance as in "keeping your life in balance" as used by Indigenous peoples.
Balance in the Western sense is similar to balancing your budget, i.e. making sure that expenditures do not exceed income.
In indigenous traditions balance refers more to making sure that your life is going properly and that your are honoring your responsibilities and behaving in a respectful manner.
You can have students discuss their understanding of these concepts.
Indigenous economics are linked to ceremonies and spirituality and are careful not to exceed limits, whereas Western concepts assume that limits can always be expanded.
Given this difference, it is not surprising that Western approaches to management, which is linked to both science and economics has led to destructive practices.
This image by the Cheyenne artist Merlin Littlethunder shows several unusual things that do not fit into Western economic or ecological concepts.
1) It shows friendly relationships between human and nonhuman
2) The nonhumans with whom the human has the friendly relationship are grizzly bears, which are feared in the Western tradition
3) Both human and nonhuman are seen as part of a total community and are cooperating to help one another.
The story behind this is that a young woman found two orphaned grizzly bear cubs and raised them. They trusted her and protected her and she in turn took care of them and introduced them to her people.
This shows that cooperation trumps fear and that any and all organisms that share a place to live can establish proper and respectful relationships.
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