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.

On our cosmic significance

If human beings have intrinsic value, then so too does every other form of life. To contest this point implicitly assumes that humans are radically different and fundamentally distinct from other animals. It assumes that humans are over and above the rest of the ecosphere. This idea of intrinsic human worth reflects the anthropocentric worldview perpetuated today by Western monotheism, neo-conservativism, and progressive liberal humanism. But Darwin’s evolution levels the playing field of cosmic significance. Human are no more important than any other part of the ecosphere. Either all life carries intrinsic value, or none does.

This line of thought has unsettling implications for the predominate view on human existence. Most people are uncomfortable with the prospect that it’s our very presence, our rapacious and environmentally manipulative human nature, that is the problem. The real problem, utopians say, is that our science, technology, and social organization have not progressed sufficiently yet. Most are adamantly faithful that progress will deliver us from unsustainability. Yet it is precisely this progressive worldview that engenders our ecological crisis to begin. A return to primitive living, however, as romantic or appealing as it may seem to some, would be impossible to sell to the vast majority of people. And we’re largely either unwilling or unable to radically change our habits of consumption or unprecedented standard of living. So the only palatable option is to progress our way out of the problems of progress. We prefer to have faith.

If not for techno-agriculture, the human presence could not have reached this point. Contextually, it’s important to remember that the development of modern agricultural technology has been a secular progressive project. Moreover, we must keep in mind that secular progressivism is a natural evolution of Judeo-Christian millenarianism: intrinsicity is the secularization of divinity. The faith that scientific, technological, and governmental progress can make our highly consumptive way of life sustainable is a secular belief that fulfills the same natural human longing as traditional religions. Both secular progressivism and modern theism serve to satisfy our spiritual desire for cosmic significance, espousing that human life is headed toward a glorious culmination, that we are the most important aspect of nature, and that we have a righteous prerogative to use nature toward our magnificent end. But neither worldview is rooted in the reality of our animal condition.

Curtailing the human presence would be a logical way of mitigating anthropogenic environmental degradation: if our numbers were stabilized and then progressively reduced through women’s education and birth control availability, then resource intensive lifestyles would be less of a concern because demand would likewise diminish, and pollution would dissipate more quickly given fewer inputs. But secular liberal humanism and religious fundamentalism, the predominate social paradigms, both value human life more highly than the totality of the ecosphere despite our utter connectivity to and dependence upon it, and so often they resist even considering routes that might slow our growth, our progress.

Without a moral evolution toward understanding human beings as indistinct from the rest of the ecosphere, despite our technoscientific power, it’s unlikely that people will admit in any significant volume that the human presence is itself the ultimate source of our ecological crisis. Humanity needs such an evolution, for on it rests any hope for a sustainable future.

JM Kincaid

For the next step in this thought process, continue to “Hope amidst the cynicism”