Meanwhile, of course, life continues, whether or not I grasp the implications of Maturana and Varela’s logical accounting. Summer hangs on past its expiration date, the Red Sox win the American League East, I get to go to a playoff game against the Angels thanks to my friend Stewart. Walking to the game, I take a little detour to the bank of the Charles on the downstream side of the B.U. Bridge, which is home to a colony of white geese. Their ancestors were brought there in the first place, about 25 years ago, as guard animals for a pumping station on the upriver side of the bridge, and since then they’ve decided it is their home. There have been various efforts on the part of the city of Cambridge and the Department of Conservation and Recreation to get them to go away, vociferously opposed by local residents who want them to stay. They’re clearly an emblem of nature for many people – on the website of the Friends of the White Geese, their habitat (maybe a mile of the riverbank) is referred to as an “urban wild” – and then there are others who think of them as pests. I of course am charmed by them, since I’m the sort of person who would keep hens in his back yard, but even if they are said to live in an “urban wild,” the white geese definitely are not. They are a mix of breeds (mostly Embden?) as domesticated as a Rhode Island Red and were brought there by a person for human purposes. There’s a distinct difference between them and the Canada geese that are everywhere in Boston, and one difference is that the white geese don’t seem willing to move away from the spot where they live, no matter how the city makes life difficult for them. In recent years, they’ve been prevented from feeding on part of the short stretch of riverbank they inhabit. But what’s preventing them from expanding the boundaries of their world in other directions? They’re geese! The river is open to them. And there’s a lot of other goose habitat around; why don’t they take advantage of it?
I show up around dusk, as the white geese, some Canada geese, and quite a few ducks are starting to settle down for the night on land. The scene is both startling and funny in its incongruity: here on the ground, dozens of large birds congregating to go to sleep, and right above them, a world of rush hour traffic. To complete the picture with one more disparate element, a crew team rows by. The white geese put up with my presence and my photographing; when I get too close for comfort they stick their beaks in the air, eye me sideways and edge away. But as I leave they set up a concerted honking as if they are reproaching me: “You shouldn’t have bothered us! Don’t you know that?”
I wonder what would happen if someone planted a plastic fox there. But I’m not going to try it and become a big-time persona non grata to the Friends of the White Geese.
At the game, I almost catch a foul ball which instead is caught by a teenage kid who then gets interviewed by three or four news outlets; I decide I’m glad I didn’t make the grab. In the bottom of the ninth, Manny wins the game with a home run.
(The kid gets to throw out the first ball at a subsequent game; I change my mind.)
A few days later, Stewart sends me a clipping from the B.U. magazine about the white geese. It turns out that two residents of Cambridge feed them twice a day. Aha – no wonder they aren’t going anywhere. In the article is this quotation from Allison Blyler, one of those who feed the geese: “They are complex beings deserving of respect and care.” What does this sound like? Donald Worster talking about a river. “Their presence provides a bridge to the natural world that many city dwellers would otherwise never cross.” One of them eats out of her hand. When she leaves, she says to him, “I’ll see you in the morning.” As far as I’m concerned, the “natural world” that the white geese represent is not so different from the anomalous salmon run in Seattle. Less spectacular, but appealing in the same kind of way. The argument of The Organic Machine has sunk in. People may have had a lot to do with the present form of the living things around us, a fact that is visible in the white geese, but this people-modified “impure” nature isn’t going to go away.
Now I see why the white geese honked in protest when I left, not when I came: “How can you leave without feeding us?”
I reinforce the chicken coop, trying to benefit from nasty experience; a raccoon killed our last two hens. Vaughn and I drive out to Brookside Farm, in central Massachusetts near the New Hampshire border, and buy three new ones: a Rhode Island Red, a Black Beauty, and a Barred Rock. They are four months old and have just started to lay. We carry them in cardboard boxes from the car, let them out inside the coop, clip their wings so they won’t fly over the fence once they’re outside, and voilà – the chicken coop is in use again. Rural nostalgia rules! These hens have lived their life till now within the walls of a henhouse, so when only chicken wire separates them from the outdoors, it seems to unnerve them. For a few days they show no sign of wanting to be let out of the coop, but as soon as I let them explore, they get the picture. The Barred Rock is the boldest; she exits first, then the Black Beauty, then the Red. After a couple of days they’re devouring the vegetation in their part of the yard, enthusiastically scratching and pecking in the dirt just like chickens always do. Instinctive behavior has always been a puzzle to me. It works, but how does it work?
Instead of chasing the answer to that, I try to figure out how Maturana and Varela would comment on the question of whether the hens and the white geese are nature. It’s still hard to get my head around their way of thinking. Through “natural drift” human beings have gotten to the point where we create culture through language; using these immensely powerful tools, we bring forth a world which becomes the reality we are facing. Among other results of culture would be the selective breeding of domestic animals, but to call these creatures “unnatural” seems silly once you can demonstrate, as M&V have done to their satisfaction, that a natural process has led to the point where humans are capable of this. Basically, in human beings “natural drift” gave rise to the capability of intervening in “natural drift.” A completely different way of saying there is no drawing a line between us and nature, but in the end, it seems to be a similar idea.
Simply put, we have agency. M&V never use the phrase “free will,” but they do say that “the human social system amplifies the individual creativity of its components” – those “components” being people – and as far as I’m concerned, you can’t talk about individual creativity without meaning that the creator has free will. So far as we can tell, amoebas, fungi, frogs, bees and trees cannot make plans and decisions about what they’re going to do next. (This might not be so clear about chimpanzees, gorillas, or whales, but that’s neither here nor there.) But we can, and for better and worse, we do. This factor cannot be subtracted from the natural world now that it has emerged. Or at least that’s what I would argue. I’m aware that other people wouldn’t; for example, there’s the notion that what’s really going on here is “selfish genes” (Richard Dawkins, 1976) trying to perpetuate themselves, so that genes are the real actors and human behavior is a mere side effect. An ingenious argument, but one that other biologists didn’t necessarily buy. People in my own field of English have made something like the “selfish gene” argument, only for them it’s language that really runs the show, or social forces like ideology. Again the individual’s sense of agency gets marginalized as an illusion; greater cultural forces are running us, far more than we realize. I always want to ask how the theorist achieved a point of view from which to make this analysis. What made the theorist different? If language or culture is so all-powerful, how did she make her escape? And if the theorist truly believed it, why write the argument down? I can’t get past this. Isn’t it a case of “Look how brilliant I am to have created this argument that people lack real agency”? And isn’t that self-contradictory?
In the absence of a satisfactory answer to that (though one may exist somewhere in my long list of not-yet-read books), I start asking myself what could be the motive for arguing away human agency. Why would I want to say that I have no real power to do anything new, anything on my own initiative? What could I get out of that, what makes it anything other than just depressing?
Would it be a way to escape guilt for my actions? To cover up their self-serving nature?
Is this position itself explainable as a product of cultural forces, e.g., the professionalization of “English”? And if so, does it matter at all?
Or is this position perhaps a sincere expression of despair?
As usual, no answers. But there’s definitely an argument going on within our culture about whether human beings are capable of origination. Whether we can begin something ourselves, or are just being used by some other more powerful agent. I come down squarely on the side of Hannah Arendt, who said in The Human Condition that “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.” (9) Not pulling any punches, she calls this a miracle. “The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new . . . an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.” (246)
I’ve experienced enough vacillation between hope and despair in my life to know it isn’t just a simple question of choice. But throwing in my allegiance with one idea or another is a choice I can make, and hope seems unequivocally to associate with Arendt’s point of view. To think that a human being cannot begin anything new feels like utter futility. And there’s enough futility already, without trying to prove that it is the ground rule of life. We’re not so overly endowed with hope that we need to have some of it chipped away.
The “selfish gene” argument, and sociobiology, and behaviorism for that matter, are all efforts to prove that humans have only the illusion of agency, but looked at from a slightly different angle they’re commentaries on man’s relationship with nature. By these descriptions, we are definitely a part of nature, and we’re a whole lot less distinctive than we imagine. Nature is certain regular mechanisms; we are products of those mechanisms; thus our behavior can be demystified. The truth to be revealed is that there’s a lot less to us than we think. Our grandiose conception of ourselves as exceptional (or even as conscious beings) needs to be taken down a peg; we are mere nature.
This just goes to show how the same premises can lead to opposite conclusions. Maturana and Varela also argue that nature is certain regular mechanisms, from which we are derived; but they conclude that the operation of these mechanisms (“natural drift”) has given rise to individual creativity and constant transformation, and has made it our mode of being to “bring forth a world.” Not to mention an ethical implication that we must love or accept others – which is hardly the ethical dimension of the “selfish gene.”
From my point of view, the ideas of Maturana and Varela totally confirm the notion that we can only project our human constructs onto nature. In their view, nature – biological reality – has its own structure, and we have ours. We are congruent but separate. Nature independently exists and is other than man, but it’s far more separate and other than the Sierra Club, let’s say, would have it be. We have no direct knowledge of it. The separateness is so fundamental that it forces us to rethink our own knowing. Any way that we make sense of the world around us (this includes M&V’s ideas, and all the rest of our science) is our own construction. Our moment-by-moment perception of it is not a representation of external reality. We are always making the reality we’re facing.
So, I think, let’s stop asking ourselves whether nature is separate from us. That question is answered, in two ways. From an organismal point of view, physical reality is indeed separate from us, due to our autonomy as organisms having our own structure. The idea of nature, any idea of it, is our creation. “Nature” is always a fiction, because the outside world is always a fiction. The notion of nature is nested within the larger collective fiction of our culture, upon which we depend for our survival. We can’t easily step outside of it, even into another culture, and as for stepping outside of culture altogether, as far as I can see, that’s impossible. We need to be in consensus with some other people, or we’re unable to function. There isn’t some absolute, extra-cultural, objective and complete knowledge of the natural world available to us. It appears that since the Enlightenment, we in the West have operated on the fiction that there was such knowledge available, that we had it (or close enough to make incredibly bold decisions), and that it gave us mastery and control. People with enormous power continue to operate on this fiction, but the consensus on it seems to be breaking down. There is serious feedback from the environment telling us that our knowledge is incomplete, our actions can have unforeseeable consequences, and not every problem has a technical fix. An alternative picture seems to be in the process of emerging; a high-stakes contest of fictions is going on, in science, in history, in politics, in policy, everywhere. This writing is my small contribution to that ongoing cultural work.