Wilson’s time machine

Re-reading Biophilia, one of E. O. Wilson’s many seminal eco-philosophical works, I was pleasantly reminded of an important quadripartite distinction laid out in chapter three, “The Time Machine.”

The time machine, Wilson tells us, is biological spatio-temporal thought experiment. Imagine we have the ability to accelerate and decelerate the passage of time without restriction, as well as to magnify and minimize the Earth from a bird’s eye view to any extreme. We could observe every detail of biological phenomena ranging from nearly instantaneous microscopic biochemical reactions to the vast evolutionary manifolds of deep time. Along the spatio-temporal continuum, Wilson makes an ascending, yet non-hierarchical, four-way distinction: biochemical time, organismic time, ecological time, and evolutionary time—each referring to different perspectives about life on Earth.

Start the thought experiment by almost freezing time at the microscopic level: biochemical time allows us to imagine and comprehend biochemical reactions occurring inside living cells that no naked eye could ever see—e.g., an electrical impulse travelling along a neuron or an enzyme catalyzing protein division. These reactions, even if somehow made visible to a normal human perspective, would be utterly indiscernible, for they begin and end in the span of a thousandth of a second. In biochemical time, we organisms appear completely motionless—so next we speed the passage of time slightly and zoom out.

Organismic time is the time and space that we and other macroscopic bio-phenomena experience. The crucial activities of organismic time take place in seconds and minutes—sentences are spoken and comprehended, gestures and decisions are made, breaths are taken, and paths are walked. Obviously, organismic time is the perspective with which people are most familiar, so without a second thought it becomes the default spatio-temporal point of view from which we assess the relative importance of biological phenomena. But it’s not so clear that organismic time, in any normative sense, is the best or only perspective worth taking on the natural world. Our species is, after all, just one of innumerable ecological constituents.

So fast-forward the passage of time and zoom-out from the spacio-temporal scale of organisms to that of the ecosystem. Days pass as quickly as seconds did from the organismic perspective and become indistinguishable from night, their respective brightness blending to yield a dim, constant glow. The seasonal cycles of ecosystem growth and retreat now take on the speed previously reserved in organismic time for daily animal cycles of sleep and activity as regulated by the Sun. We time travelers now stand witnesses to ecological time. Spanning years and centuries, we experience the rise and proliferation of rich forests from barren sandy environs—the transformation of shallow creeks into wide rivers teeming with fish and other life—the maturation of simplistic ponds into thriving communities of birds, water dwellers, and lush vegetation. Thus we behold the profound interconnectivity of ecosystems by which biochemical and organismic space and time are subsumed.

Accelerate time’s passage again and zoom-out once more: years pass by the thousands as we look down from high above the continents—the apropos thresholds for distinguishing evolutionary time. Organisms dissolve into populations and communities, and, as the millennia proceed, the concept of “individuals” holds little meaning beyond that of their momentary roles as progenitors. Families and races blur as adaptation, mutation, and natural selection generate altogether new phylogenetic lines. From the perspective of evolutionary time, the Earth resembles Lovelock’s grand homeostatic organism with ecosystems as its internal organs, individual creatures as its cellular matrix, and biochemical reactions as equivalent to how we view particles of quantum physics from the organismic vantage.

The thought experiment is supposed to remind us that there are biological spatio-temporal perspectives other than our own organismic one worth considering—even worth keeping permanently in mind when assessing multi-generational ethics that correspond to ecological time more so than to organismic time, for example. What’s important in a normative sense from the ecological or evolutionary perspective may not be so obvious from that of organismic time: depending on the problem (e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc.) organismic time may be insufficient and inappropriate for its redress.

Depending on the spatio-temporal viewpoint one takes, moral priorities change. And this works in both directions. Ecological time and evolutionary time leave little room for anthropocentricism: not only are human beings situated in contexts too large for dogmatic humanism to make much sense, the importance of individuals (and therefore individualism—a corollary of neoliberal economics) is curtailed such that any subsequent ethic would entail ecosystems or the Earth itself as the appropriate unit of moral consideration

On the other hand, biochemical time re-substantiates humanism by stationing the organism as a unit of utmost importance—each organism acting as an ecosystem of biochemical reactions all its own, in a way. While ecological and evolutionary time are inconsistent with overly individualistic anthropocentricism, the perspective of biochemical time guards against eco-authoritarian anti-humanism.

Simultaneously, Wilson’s time machine reassures us of our humanitarian identities—the overwhelming sense of pride and privilege inspired simply by being human—while we are also humbly reminded that human beings are not the grand culmination—the glorious ultimate purpose—of all the cosmos.

Hope amidst the cynicism

Recently in a seminar at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Dr. A. Karim Ahmed, Director of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington D.C., posed a provocative question about the state of contemporary environmentalism. In short, his question was this: Where can one find hope amidst the cynical pessimism of today’s environmentalism? If you are constantly confronted with talk of catastrophic climate change, imminent sea level rise, the unsustainability of modern agriculture, ocean acidification, environmental injustice, rampant deforestation, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and the major ecological damage associated with extractive industries, how to be hopeful is a daunting question. Nevertheless, what follows is a short attempt to provide such a glimmer.

We Westerners must start with a potentially difficult admission. We must admit to ourselves that the past two and a half millennia of anthropocentric philosophy, religion, and science are among the root causes of the modern ecological crisis. Ours is a rapacious way of life and we have a habit of regarding the Earth as a mere resource stock. This is especially obvious when one contrasts our paradigm with the more eco-centric worldviews stemming from Buddhist, Taoist, and Dharmic philosophies.

However, even though Western thought has traditionally distinguished we human beings from the greater natural cycles and other animals (Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, etc.), recent progress in chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, microbiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and ultimately ecology, has begun to emphasize the utter connectivity of everything from microbes, to human beings, the Earth, and the Universe (to recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remarks about our universal origin in star dust). While Baird Callicott’s “new, new ecology” synthesizing Buddhist spirituality with the Western paradigm has not yet emerged, the progression of Western thought is unveiling empirical conclusions that the aforementioned Eastern existential and metaphysical worldviews also support.

Science is an undeniable source of human power and potentially stands as a reason to reinforce our sense of cosmic arrogance and beliefs about the righteousness of the human dominion over nature, but I believe scientific progress will ultimately serve to remind us of and humble us about our place in existence, and I am confident that that humility will disseminate through society as science education is more heavily emphasized. Hopefully the result will be a proliferation of love, awe, respect, appreciation, and feelings of connectedness to the ecosphere that we have so unfortunately lost touch with from being constantly surrounded by the concrete, plastic, and technology of modern life. What hope is there? I hope that progress in science will eventually humble we human-centered Westerns about our place in nature, and remind us that we are but one small part of a beautiful greater cycle. Once we remember our fundamental connection to nature, we may become less consumed with pursuing the anthropocentric and arbitrary purposes that have thus far been a major source of our ecological crisis. Perhaps we will begin to cultivate our sense of meaning in life from being part of the ecosphere, rather than from exploiting it.

JM Kincaid