A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meaning of Specieshood

What is it that we should aspire to in life? What could possibly compare to completely manifesting the potential of our specieshood?

Every species is evolved both in and to an environment.  It is important to understand “environment” correctly; it is not a static set of conditions, but a dynamic presentation of all the events and processes of a region and a time.  From a human point of view (that is, a very limited conceptual structure) this means all things, known and unknown.

Each individual of each species is formed from an informational template created by the evolutionary process in completely interpenetrating integration with environment – the “two” are really a common process.  As a result, every species has (is) an ecological and behavioral description as defining as the structure and physiology of its body.  In other words there is a way that each species lives; the term that I am using for the total physical/ behavioral/emotional formation of a species is specieshood.

While we recognize the truth of the above assertions for all other organisms – amply evidenced by any collection of taxonomic data: ecological relations and behavioral descriptions are included as diagnostic – we are confused as to our own specieshood: we seem, to ourselves, not to have diagnostic environments and behaviors.  There are reasons for that spurious observation.

The most obvious and therefore the most difficult to recognize (studying all of those Zen Koans has taken its toll) is that we are embedded in ourselves – fish, should they be sufficiently intelligent, would have a devil of a time realizing the ocean.  It is in the perception of difference that our talents lie.

The environment, in the largest sense, in which and to which we evolved – and therefore in which our full specieshood could find expression – has been replaced in our formative and functional experience by the consequences of our exceptional adaptations.  We increased our numbers and our modifications of environmental relations more rapidly than any other creature in our beginnings and have continued that process following the unrelenting mathematics of the positive exponent to the condition today where we have been doubling world population and technological capacity in terms of a few generations and, more recently, even single generations.

We, therefore, have been convinced by the combination of our limitations and our vast capacities that we make our own behaviors.  The greatest thinkers have struggled with this problem (it is not new) largely concluding that our experience creates our worldview and behavior, that there is no human specieshood per se; it is a difficult conclusion to avoid – except for the fact that it is untrue.

In a sense we are like a complex layer cake made of very ordinary and not terribly interesting batter, but covered over with the most delicious frosting (that would be for me a variety of lemon frosting, you may chose for yourself).  We are so absorbed in the covering that we fail to realize that, without the cake structure, the frosting would be a somewhat sickening mess on the plate.  We take this structure for granted – until it fails.

But we are far too busy today to get it right.  We have wars and famine, climate change and Godliness, my power verses your power, obscene wealth and obscene deprivation.  Indigenous people have the audacity to live, and to have lived for thousands of years, on the land that has ‘our’ minerals and oil.  We seem confused by the fact that a few thousand people have amassed control of more material possessions and the power to gather such possessions than over half of the world’s people (billions of people); we cannot seem to understand the obvious, that a few having almost everything denies the many having anything.

And yet the one thing that we all have and that would make all of the difference in the how we live our lives, both personally and ecologically, we almost uniformly ignore or deny possessing at all.

I recently read an essay by a well-known and consistent contributor to the debates about our present condition.  His essay offered a number of suggestions for actions that were needed to begin the process of recovery from our present troubles.  I wrote to him suggesting that, while his suggestions were excellent and necessary ones, he had left out the most essential, that we know where we hope to go before we begin our trip; otherwise we will end up right back where we are now, only with different players.

He kindly wrote back to say, in essence, that this was too difficult a question and would make his essay unwieldy.  I understand his point of view, but reject it. 

Discovering specieshood individually gives the person an attachment to realities that can sustain a sense of wellbeing and purpose in times of comfort and adversity – doing in Reality what religion does in illusion.  And discovering specieshood as a social process would allow populations to recover themselves, as well as reattach elements of our behavior to environmental realities.

As with any species, humans have only a limited number of ‘ways to be’ that can fully express the biological, instinctual, intuitional and consciousness order processes that we are each born with.  But today there is no one way to discover/recover how to make these processes manifest.  We are each tossed at random into situations that challenge and distort the developmental sequences and mature conditions that support specieshood, and so, all have unique ‘beginnings.’

But we humans are all of the species, share 99.99% of our genetics with the rest of humanity, 97-98% of our genetics with the great apes and over half of our genetics with dandelions.  The DNA in your own personal body has been in continuous and unbroken replication from the beginning of life on the earth nearly 4 billion years ago (if there had been a break in the sequence of replication, that which has become you would have ended then and there).  Such an understanding can help.

Every human infant born ‘expects’ – has the biological/instinctual preparations to receive – the primate pattern of developmental experience: being held for a year, life in a close community of relatives, orderly patterns of discipline and instruction.  This understanding can help.

An individual human being alone in the ‘wild’ (natural) world without community and without tools (tools are but one form of community) is almost certainly doomed to a quick end from predators, starvation or madness.  This understanding can help.

Finally, however, it is the feelings in one’s own body, the recognitions of unrightness, that are most convincing.  Once the infantile confusions have eroded away – Santa Claus and God are recognized as controlling stories and not as living truths – we are faced with being a remarkable animal living in beliefs and actions that violate the unique magnificence of each life.  The instant that that sensation is felt the insistence of specieshood is (re)formed.

It doesn’t matter that others may not be convinced; the more the merrier, but proselytizing is not a goal.  Again a Koan: you cannot find specieshood without a community and if you try to find specieshood in community you will fail [1].

So, how is specieshood to be recovered? This is not a new question.  With the invention of writing, just about the first subject was the problem of living and acting correctly; there is no reason to wonder about how to do something right unless doing it wrong is an issue.  We humans have been at this for a long time with very limited success.

Perhaps a place to begin is to look at a time when people didn’t wonder about how to live correctly.  I am not suggesting living in a tepee, people often make the mistake of form as a substitute for substance.  The question is what were the salient conditions of specieshood.  Here are a few of them:

•A largely meditative existence in which several hours in a typical day are spend paying close attention to everything at once, to the wind, the smell of the air, the sounds, the movement of the light – these were the detail of a Reality from which came every good and bad thing.  The human nervous system is designed for this integrative, meditative function.

•A daily life in which each person both feels and is competent to act on life’s big and little issues.  Individual needs are meet with actions completely interconnected with community needs.  And community needs are integrated into the ecology in ways that make so much sense that they go completely unnoticed.

•It would be a great help to be raised from birth on the primate pattern in intimate communion with human community and nature, but since most of us don’t have experiences that meet that goal, it needs to be reproduced to some extent.  Being properly parented is the salient condition, but failing that we need to reparent ourselves.  There is a large literature on the subject; I am uncomfortable with it, but recognize both the necessity and utility of the activity.

•Being personally in charge of one’s community relations. This means not just being a part of a community, but being integrated into community.  Most groups, organizations and collectives, today, do not have the necessary properties because they are special purpose entities rather than the primary human structure in interaction with the world at large.  My own community includes both living humans and dead ones whose thoughts are of the greatest immediacy in my relationship to the world.

•A daily intimacy with Reality: weather, diurnal cycle, exercise, exertion.  These are the expression of the earth’s processes in our immediate experience and are not to be avoided.

•Regular challenges combining the physical and mental worlds.  An example is getting lost and finding one’s way.  I like to do this in wild country; walk for a couple of hours or more, exploring the country off of established trails and then return by some alternate route, discovered during the exploration.  Some of the same effect can be had by getting lost in a city.

•There is more.

These things and more can to be done in “modern” life.  Humans have gathered much valuable information about the world.  I would not do away with science, philosophy, literature, art or the basic nature of modernity; though we must also learn to live with these discoveries, not by denying our specieshood, but by rediscovering, fully embracing and learning how to integrate our specieshood as a guiding principle of modernity.

This is the cusp upon which we sit at the moment.  The present trajectory has only been guided by the position of the last instant energized by some unprecedented new discovery or event – like the whirligig fireworks from a roman candle.  No species of life can long survive on such a ‘plan.’  We will either come into (re)possession of our specieshood, individually and collectively, as a guiding principle or we will burn out like a firework.  All of our other options are fantasies.

[1] I believe that the origin of the Koan is recognition of the loss of specieshood 3 thousand years ago in China and India, and the attempt to find ways (Tao) to recover.

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