I rather suspect that my last post may have been experienced as cryptic and consequently difficult by those of you who are unfamiliar with the authors mentioned in that post, and more particularly with the concept of Gaia. For greater clarity, and hopefully better understanding of the importance of what I was trying to get at, I decided it was probably better to take nothing for granted about the kind of exposure you may have had to the work of Woese, Lynn Margulis, and James Lovelock. (I'll try to be brief, but not to oversimplfy . . .)
I already warned you, in the last paragraph of my previous post, that you would need to take the most evocative of Lynn Margulis's extravagant metaphors (in Symbiotic Planet) with more than a pinch of salt. Never mind; Margulis's concept of "endosymbiosis" (the now generally accepted term for the ability of organisms to depend on invasive other organisms for supplementing and augmenting their own necessary internal functions) puts the right degree of emphasis upon the interdependence of life forms on this planet for survival. Lovelock's hypothesis of a self-sustaining process of interdependence between life forms and the simply physical and chemical matrix in which they live (We, too, of course!) is valuable for its emphasis on the larger picture (at least, on this planet; the forms that the "Gaia" hypothesis might take in the rest of the universe are currently not beyond our ability to speculate or hypothesize about, but almost certainly beyond our present ability to envisage realistically).
Where does Woese come in? Well, it was Woese, in that astounding article referred to in an earlier post (It is obtainable by simply googling "A New Biology for a New Century"), who recognised that the gradual development of symbolic ability in human beings represented, and represents, the transition to a new evolutionary era. He called it simply "post-Darwinian", because the evolution of symbolic ability in us means that we are not now simply existing in a biological matrix in which our ability to survive depends on the workings of the same kinds of competitive and adaptive processes to which all other forms of life are subject, but that we also live in a matrix of "manufactured meaning"––that is, a matrix of beliefs, themselves derived from the manner in which we have chosen to use our symbolic ablities, and which therefore may or may not have resulted in representations that correspond to reality. We are nevertheless at a stage in our own evolution, in our time, and on this planet, in which we can be aware of the fact of our own existences, and thus, not only of other existences, too, but also of the nature of our interdependence with them. (The earlier chapters of Making Sense of Us examine this state of affairs in some detail.) I do not think it extravagant to conceive of this new ability as evidence for the evolution of mind. It may also, of course, be a fact in other parts of the universe, too, whether more or less developed than in our own case.
How does all this pertain to our own existential situation? If we are unable to confront the fact that our committment to pure competitive processes between ourselves is leading to disaster, it is not unlikely that we could in fact bring about our own extinction. The author Gwynne Dyer has openly speculated on the nature of the processes that might eventually produce such an outcome––Global warming producing massive and uncontrollable migrations, subsequent chaos in those societies having to cope with the immigrations, and in consequence "climate wars", plus the apparent absence of any current international ability to come to grips with our own involvement in bringing about a unified global concern about humankind's survival.)
Well, if there is little political evidence of a commitment by humankind to confront itself, our science fiction writers have been more forthcoming. The title of this post (without the question mark) is taken from the title of Arthur C. Clark's novel, which envisages a world where humankind has been unable to confront itself, and is in fact "rescued" from our internecine activities by invaders from outer space, who turn out to have been charged with the responsibility of assuring humankind's survival in order to foster the genetic changes that will in future produce a species of humans with supernatural powers of control. A "deus ex machina", indeed! Clark's imagination, then, foresees that it is unlikely that humankind will rescue itself. In something of the same vein is John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, which envisaged the evolution of a race of superhumans with telepathic powers as a result of a nuclear war. Again, genes as the "deus ex machina"!
Much more useful to us, I think, from my point of view, is Russell Hoban's brilliant novel Riddley Walker, which imagines a surviving group of human beings in South-East England
who, many centuries after a global nuclear disaster, are attempting to establish a kind of civilization that makes sense to them, and also makes sense of the disaster whose causes are the occasion of folklore and primitive speculative understanding. Riddley Walker is a shaman of sorts, an itinerant "seer" who guides others into questioning by using the techniques of a surviving variant of the Punch and Judy show. There is no "deus ex machina" here, only a painstaking questioning of the possibility of ultimate meaning. It is a marvelous book.
All my science-fiction examples, of course, are drawn from a period during which the prime envisaged disaster for humankind was considered to be a nuclear war. That is no longer a salient preoccupation generally in 2013, although the shadow of its possibility still looms. Our current global concerns display a reverberation between how to face up to the possibility of climate disasters, international terrorism, and whatever the issue of the day seems to be.
I do not want to disparage the importance of those issues, but I do want to suggest that we need a more all-encompassing understanding of our human situation than is offered by any attention to specific issue problem-solving.
For the moment, ruminating upon the implications of Woese's work will certainly keep us busy, so I'll save my further comments until the next post. To alert you in advance, my few earlier posts on the work of Bauman, Elias, and Lévinas will suggest the direction of my thinking. For those of you with access to a good library, the overall implications are examined meticulously in Norbert Elias's Involvement and Detachment, and in Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust. I'll try to summarize those implications as straightforwardly as possible in the next post.
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