Evolutionary Biology, Philosophy of Nature, Ethics of Responsibility


Founded in January 2003, the Center for Humans and Nature, dedicated to long term moral and civic responsibilities to humans and nature, is now four years old. I am struck how we are still in a more or less major transition – for the better – in every area of our work. Consider our various programs. North American Global Responsibilities: exploring with IUCN the philosophic and ethical underpinnings of a code of ethics for biodiversity conservation. Chicago and the Midwest: promoting ecosystems, as well as biodiversity, perspectives in the Chicago region and wind power in the mid-continent. The Lowcountry of South Carolina: a new partnership with the state’s DNR and the Trappist Monastery, Mepkin Abbey, exploring long term humans and nature well being in the region and beyond. Regional New York: the new project, the Hudson River Watershed: Shared Landscapes and Civic Responsibilities, undertaken with the Center for Biodiversity/AMNH, the New-York Historical Society, and an Environmental Consortium of Hudson River Colleges and Universities, some 40 + strong. This is not to mention our Humans and Nature website revisions and new civic community and communication efforts. Everywhere significant new possibilities loom large. 

I also think back on meetings held in 2006, especially those including colleagues new to our Humans and Nature efforts: the Chicago Biofuels and Regional Water Meetings; the South Carolina Climate Change and the Rising Sea Levels Conference; the Code of Ethics for Biodiversity Meeting with IUCN in Gland, Switzerland. In response to these meetings, I have felt provoked to compose a brief philosophic riff: “Bottom Lines and the Earth’s Future” (see appendix). Thanks in large measure to the impact of climate change on the public’s and concerned citizen’s minds, the ice of environmental indifference, neglect, or denial seems to be braking up (perhaps influenced by the natural ice break-ups in Greenland and the Antarctic). There is a new wave of environmental or conservation concern afoot. Yet civically we seem caught unprepared. Many (most) people inside and outside the conservation and environmental movements are stuck on old tracks, thinking within old and outmoded worldviews and frameworks of thought. We seem still dominantly mired in Newton’s nature (“natural resources”; physicalist, reductionist, deterministic thinking), the world according to global economic markets, and economic bottom lines by which we presently live, act, and judge ourselves. As political and civic communities (regional, national, global), we have yet to discover Darwin’s nature and its implications: nature alive, valuable, and significant; human beings’ fundamental, dynamic, and historical involvement in natural processes and involvement in landscapes; and our broad moral and civic responsibilities to both humans and nature. 

These reflections are only underscored by a recent Humans and Nature Retreat in South Carolina, whether we were discussing our work in Chicago, New York, and South Carolina; Global activities; or Wes Jackson’s new initiative in the Midwestern states on wind power electricity. As strongly as ever, we recognize that we humans are in a real and deep natural and cultural crisis; that time is running out on preventing human and natural disasters, especially with respect to climate change; and that a necessary, perhaps radical and sweeping, cultural change has yet to take place. As political and civic societies, we are still on an aging 19th century, coal-fired, smoke belching locomotive headed towards a mountain tunnel that is a cul de sac with no exit. 

What can the Center for Humans and Nature, beyond being the mouse that roars collaboratively with others, do to stop outmoded worldviews, the global market tide, and our head long rush into the mountainside? 

We are faced with a long term practical and cultural problem. For example, humanity will be dealing with climate change into the indefinite, unforeseeable future. Yet, among others, the moral and spiritual patron saint of conservation, Aldo Leopold and his Land Ethic, have yet to be heard, especially in urban centers where economic and political power and decision makers are concentrated. 

Nevertheless, Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac remains a living text, a beacon beckoning us towards a new philosophic, cultural, and moral worldview that ultimately we will require if humans and nature are going to ¬¬survive and thrive into the future. Moreover, we are fortunate to have other living texts that can aid the transition to new philosophic and moral worldviews, “New World Symphonies”: the thoughtful reflections of Ernst Mayr, Alfred North Whitehead, and Hans Jonas, among innumerable others. 

Ernst Mayr has called for a new philosophy of science that will recognize the fundamental characteristics and methodologies of evolutionary, ecological biology and the living world that it studies. Old philosophic and scientific (physicalist) habits and modes of thought conceptually stand in the way of understanding and properly valuing animate (organic) nature. 

Alfred North Whitehead in the early 20th Century called for an analogous radical critique of positivist, physicalist, Newtonian science and its Nature Dead. We need to move on to speculatively conceive Nature Alive: the universe creatively advancing into novelty, with innumerable human and natural values and goodness thereby realized. This new speculative philosophy is explicitly meant to promote coherent and civilized civic, political, and social action. 

From a different perspective and context - Hitler’s Germany and continental philosophy - Hans Jonas also turned a searing critical eye on positivist, reductionist, Newtonian science (Nature Valueless) and its philosophic absurdity, nihilistic implications (radical annihilation of values), and practical threats (modern technologies run amok). In critically undermining the misguided metaphysical pretensions of modern positivist science, Jonas felt the legitimacy of philosophically beginning anew. He boldly, but critically, speculated upon Nature Purposive, which includes its own inherent natural and human values and which offers the philosophic opportunity for newly conceiving an ethics of responsibility responsive to the present and future of humanity and nature in all their intimate interconnections and interactions. 

The Center for Humans and Nature (and previously the Humans and Nature Program at the Hastings Center) and I personally have recurrently explored the work of Leopold, Mayr, Whitehead, and Jonas. It is time to gather together and re-examine our efforts. In particular, we should consider how evolutionary biology, the philosophy of nature, and an ethics of responsibility might mutually inform one another and help promote an alternative, counter-culturalist worldview (framework of thinking) that will be required to meet adequately present and future practical, cultural, and natural crises. 

This would not be a mere philosophic or intellectual exercise undertaken for its own intrinsic merits (which are many). We should have an ultimate civic aim: a practical worldly ethics and a civic call to arms. Granted, whatever our promptings, we should not expect the present civic, political, and economic culture to rush to our side. However, if protracted cultural and natural crises should cause civic citizens and political and cultural leaders to question the error of their worldview ways, we would have a plausible and persuasive alternative to offer them. They would not be left in a cultural and intellectual lacuna. We could offer them the opportunity to join us in the quest for a philosophic and moral worldview (“Nature Alive”) fit for our time. 

This significant project constitutes more than a strategic move for the Center for Humans and Nature. Arguably it is our moral responsibility, since few others seem willing or able to undertake the task. It meets our self-imposed requirement of practical democratic, ecological citizenship. 

Bibliography (Published) 

“Whitehead and Jonas: On Biological Organisms and Real Individuals,” Organism, Medicine, and Metaphysics (Philosophy and Medicine. (Vol. VIII); D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1978. 

“Whitehead and Jonas: Organism, Causality, and Perception,” International Philosopher Quarterly, Spring 1982. 

* “The Philosopher’s Poet: Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago, and Whitehead’s Cosmological Vision,” Process Studies, Spring 1984. 

* “Hans Jonas, The Philosophy of Nature, and the Ethics of Responsibility,” Social Research, Autumn 1989. 

“Humans Within Nature – Hans Jonas and the Imperative of Responsibility,” International Health: Beyond the Year 2000, edited by Ajivar Velgi, MD, Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, Vol. 9, No. 2, June 1995. 

* “The Art of Moral Ecology,” Ecosystem Health, 1.3, September 1995. 

* “Bioethical Troubles: Animal Individuals and Human Organisms,” Hastings Center Report, Special Issue, Vol. 25:7, December 1995. 

“Transgenic Animals and “Wild” Nature: A Landscape of Moral Ecology,” in The Ecology of Health: Identifying Issues and Alternatives, Jennifer Chesworth, ed., Sage Publications, January 1996. 

“Nature as Reality Check,” Hastings Center Report, Vol. 26, No. 6, November/December 1996. 

* “Human Nature, Views of,” Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Academic Press, London, 1998. 

* “Scientists’ Public Responsibilities,” The Living Planet in Crisis, Columbia University Press, New York, 1999. 

* “Nature, Freedom, and Responsibility: Ernst Mayr and Isaiah Berlin,” Social Research 67:4, Winter 2000. 

* “Animal Matters,” New Dimensions in Bioethics, A.W. Galston and E.G. Shurr, Kluwar Academic Publishers, Boston, 2001. 

* “Philosophy, Evolutionary Biology, and Ethics: Ernst Mayr and Hans Jonas,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, , 23:1, 2001. Reprinted and revised as “Natural Responsibilities – Philosophy, Biology, and Ethics in Ernst Mayr and Hans Jonas,” Hasting Center Report, Vol. 22:4, 2002 

* “Leopold’s Darwin: Climbing Mountains, Developing Land,” The Good in Nature and Humanity, Island Press, Washington, DC, 2001. 

* “Water Wildness,” The Land Report, Number 83; Fall 2005. 

* “Ethical Boundaries of Animal Biotechnology: Descartes, Spinoza, and Darwin” in Nature’s Edge: Boundary Explorations in Ecological Theory and Practice, SUNY Press, Spring 2007. 

* “The Path of Enlightened Ignorance: Alfred North Whitehead and Ernst Mayr,” In Praise of Ignorance: Prospects for a New World View, University Press of Kentucky, Fall 2007. 

Expanding our Natural and Civic Imagination (unpublished pieces): 

* “Kansas on My Mind” (1996) 

* “Allegory of the Prefab” (2003) 

* “Minding Nature, Minding Ourselves” (2003) 

* “Frog Pond Philosophy” (2004) 

* “Water Wildness: Kansas Edition” (2005) 

* “Hunting Hennepin’s Windblown Bottom” (2006) 

* “Big Little Snake: Metaphor Mongers and Mountain Rainbows” (2006) 

* “Nature, Democratic Habits, and Emergent Selves: Towards Natural Democracies and Democratic Naturalism” (2006) 

* “Bottom Lines and the Earth’s Future” (2007) 

* “Prairie Ball Fields and Louisville Slugger Ideas” (2007) 

* “Environmentalism and Conservation: Connecting the Humans and Nature Dots” (2007)