Readers who have been reading this blog over several months, and readers who have themselves also read Making Sense of Us, will know that I attach enormous importance to the work of Carl Woese and Lynn Margulis (and incidentally, of course, James Lovelock), who have each raised––in somewhat different ways–– the issue of the balance between cooperative and competitive motives in the evolution of life. The word "symbolism" in my title is a deliberate reminder that what now largely affects the motives of human beings as part of the Gaia system is our beliefs about the nature of the world. Lovelock himself, for example, chose to use the word "organism" as a metaphor for the actual process, thinking that it would make his hypothesis more easily accessible of understanding to the hypothetical "person in the street." Lynn Margulis has more than once mentioned that this was a tactical error on his part, but she herself has been on record as also giving a kind of personality to the process, by calling Gaia "a tough bitch."
I've remarked elsewhere, too, on our tendency (even on the part of "experts" who should know better) to attribute an almost personal motive to social processes, such that Bauman, and indeed many other students of social process, can talk of the power that "consumerism" exercises over us, as if it were an actual agent. I see all these manifestations as similar to those that endow motives to a hypothesized "God", or first mover, and see us as necessarily subject to his or her whimsical and presumed self-serving wishes. Richard Dawkins, of course, is another who notoriously has attributed motive to the workings of evolutionary process as if it were itself consisting of wilful intent (selfish both on the part of genes, and that hypothesized nonentity, the "meme").
Clearly, we human beings have an overweening tendency to see motive everywhere. Why is it so hard to accept that the evolutionary process is simply the result of myriad entitities and processes accommodating to the demands made of them (I am consciously being metaphorical, of course) by the interactions of those very processes? I can only hypothesize that the answer must lie in our existential angst about whether we do ourselves have a purpose. As some of you know, I explored the significance of this concern in the last chapter of Making Sense of Us. Perhaps I can now do little better than refer you again to that last chapter, and also, with the strongest recommendation possible, to advise that you read Lynn Margulis's superb summary of the existential issues involved in the last chapter of her book Symbiotic Planet.
Just a short proviso, though: I cannot go along with Margulis's characterizing our human species as little more than "upright mammalian weeds." (She did tend to get carried away by her rhetorical flair!) I proposed a different evolutionary trajectory for our species in the final chapters of MSOU. Much depends on what kind of control we ourselves are actually able to exercise over our symbolic processes. As Carl Woese pointed out, symbolism denotes that we are are no longer in a purely Darwinian era. What we believe about ourselves, one another and the world is a powerful determinant of everything we choose to do. What our various symbolisms enable us or encourage us to believe is now a major factor in determining our future. We'd do well to understand better how we ourselves have actively contributed to that process. All of Making Sense of Us is relevant . . .
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