Thursday, July 3, 2014

Extinction Events and the Human Sciences

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University
Jairus Victor Grove
University of Hawai'i 

Mill, Marx, Weber, Mannheim, Hayek, Keynes, Berlin, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Elster, Schumpeter, Rawls, Habermas, Shklar, Taylor, Strauss, Kateb… The canonical list could be extended. These are justly famous, Euro-American, mostly male, philosophical, social, economic and political theorists writing predominantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They disagree with each other about several notable things. Those are the debates we love. There are, however, significant affinities and complementarities between them occluded by those debates. Some humanist versions of postcolonial theory and feminism also participate in them. Whether they define humans as so exceptional that everything else fades into “nature”, or treat that nature as forming the background, natural context or staging ground of human action, or silently fold providential assumptions into the course of that nature, or treat humans as actual or potential masters of it, or combine some of these views into one synthetic picture, they tend to think of most nonhuman change as set on long, slow time. 

There is a sense amongst many in the human sciences ,even those who reject creationism, that the ‘chaotic earth’ is part of a primordial past. Not unlike the origin myth of Genesis the formative processes of upheaval that set the world in motion are thought to have congealed and cooled for the age of man. That asteroidal bombardment, ocean currents, symbiogenesis, plate tectonics, and the manufacture of the molecule O2 by early plants can be subsumed under the word “nature” is revealing. It may disclose the masters to be mistaken along a dimension that infiltrates the rest of their thinking.
The dominant tendency among them is to construe “nature” to change slowly unless and until “culture” becomes entangled with it and, often enough, to weave a cocoon around the human estate to insulate it from rapidly changing nonhuman processes. That was understandable for a while. As Elizabeth Kolbert and Michael Benton review respectively in The Sixth Extinction and When Life Nearly Died, even eminent geologists and evolutionary biologists pushed a version of gradualism for a long time. The seminal geologist Charles Lyell and the evolutionist, Charles Darwin, made fun of older theories of periodic “catastrophe”, as advanced for instance by that strange biologist Cuvier who Foucault found to be so mesmerizing. Echoing Kant’s postulates about human progress without radical breaks, they found no sharp punctuations in geology or biological evolution. They advanced their own theories against adamant opposition from some theological orientations. Did the hegemony of the theo/evolution debate drain attention from an equally important debate between gradualism and the theme of periodic “catastrophe”?
When Luis Alveraz and Stephen J. Gould challenged gradualist views, as late as 1980, the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” was ridiculed by many evolutionary biologists. That theory, now backed by a lot of evidence, contended that evolution could proceed gradually and then turn rapidly due to a major, sometimes exogenous event. If that theory turned out to be true evolutionary biologists would need to pay attention to geological change, astrophysical events, the changing pace and range of human migration, settlement and travel, and climate processes to study their own field. They would have to become transdisciplinary. That alone was enough to cause consternation in academic departments.
The claim was that dinosaurs had been wiped out suddenly 65 million years ago in the aftermath of a massive asteroid hitting Mexico. The impact, the global dusting, and the ensuing climate change destroyed these masters of the earth in a short time, setting off a new turn in evolution that favored mammals and other species. As late as the nineteen nineties an eco-friendly colleague strongly advised one us to drop Gould because the pros in evolutionary biology found him to be incredible. Today, of course, the asteroid event is supported by massive evidence and its effect on evolution now widely accepted. Things change rapidly sometimes in the world and in theory. Both the scope and speed of punctuation are pertinent.
We now know that there have been several extinction events The most devastating, when life itself came close to being extinguished, occurred about 250 million years ago. Over a mere 100,000 years about 90% of the earth’s species succumbed, with the rate and pace varying on sea and land. Why? That debate continues. Was it another asteroid? Few seem to think so. Was it a series of huge methane bursts from the sea, fouling the atmosphere and changing the climate? Perhaps. Other major evolutionary turning points are now under investigation as well, punctuated by a large series of “minor” events. One major extinction started around 450 million years ago, another around 200 million years ago, and, yes, another is rapidly underway as we speak. The last one is primarily a product of human activity, in which our modes of travel inadvertently carry bacteria, fungi, and other species into new environments, our modes of carbon extraction contribute to rapid climate change, and our break up of species migration routes block the escape of diverse species. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Well, what difference would it make to that diverse group of canonical thinkers listed at the beginning of this post if each had been impressed, at least on this score, with Cuvier over Darwin? If they both accepted evolution and stood Darwinian gradualism on its head? After all, most of these events happened long ago and many are set on fairly long historical scales.
Well, they and we might have become more alert to how a host of nonhuman processes including plant evolution, hurricanes, ocean currents, volcanoes, fungi transmissions, asteroids, bacteria, and animal evolutionary patterns, both follow specific trajectories of their own and periodically become imbricated in unruly ways with human processes of production, travel, faith, politics, investment, consumption, and war. We might have folded a sense of how interacting force fields set on different time scales enable, interrupt, turn and reshape our own trajectories of being. And we theirs.The twentieth century thinkers also might have come to terms earlier with how modern human practices can affect climate, help to acidify oceans, and serve as prime movers in extinction events. (The hypothesis of planet warming because of human action was offered as early as 1896) We might have explored the terms of our entanglements with a host of other active forces and micro-actants. We might also have sensed how the hotly contested ideals of radical individualism, national unity, productionist collectivism, market rationalism, providential theism, capitalist mastery, human exceptionalism, and organic holism may all reflect in different ways evasions of the planetary conditions of life.
Each tends to project a future of smooth possibility in our relations with the nonhuman world more than to prepare us to cope with modes of change and unruliness coming from multiple sites. It is difficult to imagine that thinkers engaged with the catastrophic tendencies of the world could sustain ideas about impersonal market stability or argue that ecological concerns were secondary or tertiary to real politics. We certainly would not lionize James Carville for insisting to a Democratic party at the tipping point of a new conservative era that “It’s the economy, stupid.” We might even have explored how the cultural hesitancy to accept the reality of a world set on multiple interacting tiers of time expressed a series of theistic and atheistic, conservative and liberal, demands for a world that was ours for the taking. We might have challenged spiritual denialism in the human sciences. Certainly, Nietzsche proposed such a course of action quite a while ago. 
Dominant modes of explanation, multiple spatiotemporal scales to engage in exploring an issue, problematical features of several western ideals of the good life, and the dubious standing of spiritual demands we make upon God, the earth, and/or the cosmos. Could they be interrupted by challenging both naturalist gradualism and human exceptionalism?
Should theorists and social scientists today drop the crew listed at the top of this piece? No, some of their insights remain. But we should not lionize them too much either or understand them simply in their “cultural contexts”. (The “we” is invitational.) We need, rather, to read them against themselves, with one eye on their assumptions, demands and affinities and the other on the predicament they have helped to bestow upon us. We may also read them in the company of "minor" thinkers who, though not perfectly prescient either, waged war against the dominant contests and the existential spiritualities clinging to them. Think, for instance, of Thoreau, Nietzsche, James, the later Merleau-Ponty, Val Plumwood, Guattari, Gandhi, Kafka, Rachel Carson, Bateson, Gould, Terrence Deacon, Whitehead, and Werner Herzog.
Rachel Carson Testifying Before Congress on the Dangers of Pesticides, 1962.
Yes, Marx’s theory of alienation reveals things about capitalist hegemony, the burdens of factory work and the commodity form. But we need to add the alienation from mortality, from interspecies entanglements, and from the shaky place of the human estate in the cosmos to the list. These modes of spiritual insistence can also surge periodically into the intercoded domains of production, consumption, investment, and voting. More of us need to pursue the transcendence of some modes of alienation and to transfigure others to help us affirm a world of becoming that is neither simply our oyster nor our staging ground. Certainly we might think twice before wagering a century and a half of industrial expansion and development in the hope of creating the conditions for a true revolutionary class. We need both to confront our contributions to the sixth extinction and to affirm the shaky place of the human estate on the planet as one of the conditions of being rather than seeking another world to be built on the ruins of this one.
What of Kant’s reliance on ‘nature’s secret plan’ for the self-organizing moral maturation of humanity. Despite the claims of contemporary philosophy and liberal thinking to be post-metaphysical have the cosmopolitans and neo-Kantian’s really rid themselves of this strong faith in providence? We do not think so. Even as most on the Academic left challenged climate deniers, not enough has changed in their own views of a human-centric world. Like their fellow travelers the Neo-Arendtians, they bristle at the idea of a world not for humans. If instead climate change teaches us, as Timothy Morton has argued, that this was never our world to begin with how confident can we be of moral theories hitched to a human separatism? It seems in an age in which thoughtless human globe trotting has spread fungus imperiling the existence of all amphibians we may want to hesitate before we declare ourselves global citizens. That global justice is no match for one of the more than 8,000 life ending near earth asteroids should give us pause. Certainly it should humble our sense of uniqueness among living things and maybe inspire a little creaturely solidarity.
Or take Geroge Kateb and Charles Taylor, the radical individualist and the neo-providentialist who disagree with each other so much. Is our place on the planet more entangled and fragile than either the atheist or the theist has so far projected? Is it time to challenge respectfully the patterns of existential insistence expressed in both versions of providentialism?
Our Pale Blue Dot.
Today perhaps more of us need to experience plants and other actants more through the eyes of Jane Bennett, capitalism through those of Gilles Deleuze and Eugene Holland, the shifting affective tones of human perception through those of Brian Massumi, species evolution through those of Elizabeth Grosz, Lynn Margulis and Terrence Deacon, the pertinence of Sophocles and tragic possibility through those of Bonnie Honig and Steven Johnston, the issue of sovereignty and tragic possibility through those of Mike Shapiro and James Der Derian, the pursuit of theopoetic pluralism through those of Catherine Keller, the event of the Anthropocene through those of Bruno Latour and Tim Morton, creative Bangladesh ecological practices through those of Naveeda Khan, the waxing and waning of Indian spiritualities through those of Bhrigu Singh, the thinking of forests in the work of Eduardo Kohn, the break up of Antarctica through those of Werner Herzog, and the relation between extinction events and existential politics through those of Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Benton and artists like J.G. Ballard who in 1962 wrote a novel called the Drowned World set in the aftermath of radical sea level rise.
Detroit Public School.
As The Dark Mountain environmental collective recently put it, maybe we should try to, “paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognize as something approaching a truth.” This seems to us what is at stake in a revaluation of our master thinkers. To take seriously the world at large is to theorize along side whales, trees, hurricanes, asteroids, the fleeting presence of iridescent frogs, minor human thinkers, other ways as well as forms of life all while not losing sight of the human estate we struggle to hold on to in the maelstrom of an expanding universe.
The frail heritage of gradualism and exceptionalism is not up to this task. The human sciences must no longer feed off the carbon remains of old emissions. 

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