Will knowing nature make us better humans? Can A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry give us the answer?

In my current research, the question I am asking is how we can create better connections amongst ourselves, and with our environment. And I wonder if there is a link: Would we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment? And vice versa?

To help me frame this question, this article by Australian professor of environmental philosophy Freya Mathews comes in handy:

Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry (find the article as a pre-publication here)

This blogpost is my  short summary of Mathews article.

Mathews writes: “The advent of the notion of biomimicry in design circles and the vision of a second industrial revolution based on it has, … moved us closer to the goal of planetary ecological integrity, closer than the traditional environment movement ever did.” However, she continues, “biomimicry remains vulnerable to co-optation by as powerful an anthropocentric mentality as that which launched the original industrial revolution and ravaged, in our time, the living constituency of the biosphere.” Therefore, Mathews argues, “a deeper philosophy of biomimicry is currently needed”.

Asking for “deeper, necessary principles in nature that in some sense render the design principles enumerated by biomimicry theorists intelligible”, Mathews comes up with two: the principle of conativity and the principle of least resistance. According to the principle of conativity, “all living beings and living systems are animated by a will or impulse to maintain and increase their own existence.” Mathews refers to the Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, who “defined conatus as the will wherewith everything strives to persevere in its own existence”. The principle of least resistance has to do with “the very particular manner in which [all living things] pursue their conative ends.” Mathews states that “they do so in a way that involves the least expenditure of effort on their part.” These two principles are intertwined, and form the basis of a stable ecosystem. Why? Because: “Living systems actively strive to persevere in their own existence and they choose to do so, logically enough, in those ways that least deplete their self-energies. These will generally be ways that least provoke resistance from others – ways, in other words, that are most consistent with the conativity of others.”

So, how come we humans have screwed it up so miserably? Mathews argues, that although we are conative beings, we are also “endowed with reflexive awareness”, and therefore, “we can reflect upon our own nature, and, by reflecting upon it, modify it.” Although conativity “will remain our fundamental impulse … the ‘existence’ to which we are dedicated will now be conceptually mediated rather than merely corporeally given”. We are thus able to “choose our ends in accordance with our discursive systems”, and these will inevitably “vary from culture to culture”. Therefore, what we conatively pursue, “may not conform to the principle of least resistance”. And for Mathews this means, that our “ends may clash with the ends of others”.

So, basically what she is saying is, that we human beings are able to reflect, to engage in abstract thinking, and therefore, we can choose to do things that do not match our basic instincts. We are cultural beings, and therefore we are capable of stepping outside the “conative template path laid down by nature”. And this may leads us to “act … in an ‘impose and control’ mode, that effectively places us ‘outside nature'”.

But how can we be sure, on the other hand, that everything a non-human living being does, will always benefit its surroundings? Mathews’ answer would be that beings who fail the principle of least resistance will be wiped out by natural selection. Since they would spend more energy on their survival than they have – and thereby causing more damage to the surroundings than necessary – they wont be able to procreate. According to “a necessity arising from the logical dynamics of evolution”, living systems “evolve an existential disposition that leads them to favour this modality [the path of least resistance]”.

So how does this relate to our current crisis? The keyword for Mathews is energy. Since we, in modern civilization, have gained access to “virtually unlimited supplies of energy”, and “since that power has been derived from external energy supplies, and has not been drawn from our own life-force, we have not been self-depleted or self-decreased by expending it.” In this way, we have avoided “the usual selective consequences of impose-and-control behaviour – only because the energy we have been using to do this has not been our own.”

Our capacity as human beings of reflexivity seems thus to be the cause of the mess we have brought to the planet. But – and here comes the good news – reflexivity is also the key to make it all good again. “As reflexive beings we can grasp the logical force of the conative template laid down by nature and choose to re-conform to it” writes Mathews.

We need to ask the question of “what the life system wants us to want”, as Mathews puts it. This requires that we cultivate “a certain sensitivity to the self-directed patterns-of-unfolding of others”. This adaptation to the conativity of others can take place in two ways. As “a result of deliberation” or “as a result of communicative encounter or exchange”.

Deliberation, Mathews suggest, can go through the methods of science or natural history. However, a thourough insight into the conative tendencies of biological systems requires “a significant expansion of traditional biological and ecological sciences”. The problem is, that “traditional science simply fails to register conativity”, because “its wholesale objectification of natural systems leaves no room for the dimension of self-meaning”. Without the sensitivity towards the self-meaning of other living systems, we will not be able to attune our own ends to theirs.

This is where the second way of adaptation comes into the picture: communicative encounter. “Direct communication” with another living being will allow us to “discover [its] conativity”, and “adapt our own conativity to its”. This communicative encounter “might induce it to disclose us its own sense of self”, which “might be achieved via some form of self-expression or self-revelation intrinsic to that entity”. What would this kind of communicative encounter look like? Mathews gives the example of a possible ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales. The bird or the whale may then “begin to express its sense of itself”, whereafter “cross-species patterns of sound may be created which express but enlarge the musical signatures of both parties.” This will leave both parties “moulded by the encounter”, and our conativity will be “bent towards the conativity of our musical confreres”.

In the last part of the article Mathews discusses how a “bio-synergistic civilization” might be worked out. She mentions a possible inspiration from ‘pre-modern forager societies’, although she doesn’t find it “entirely clear how the bio-synergistic principles of earlier forager societies could be re-invoked in the context of modern mass societies”.

Her suggestions for a possible model includes the use of solar energy, the consumption of bush foods, and “the setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.”

Turning back to my initial question, whether we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment, Mathews’ article doesn’t answer the question fully. But it sets up a necessary conceptual framework, from which I will discuss the question in my next blogpost, coming up!

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