Consilience, Ecocriticism, and Ecological Destruction


I argue that effectively combating environmental destruction requires a consilient approach that integrates information from biology, economics, anthropology, ecocriticism, and environmental narratives.


Consilience, Ecocriticism, and Ecological Destruction

Ecocriticism offers the possibility of a consilient criticism, that is, one that unites the sciences and the humanities in a continuum of knowledge.  E.O. Wilson, who took the unfortunate term consilience—few know what it means—from William Whewell’s 1840 tome, explains: “The cleavage between naturalism and social constructivism…extends to the foundation of knowledge itself. . . . Either the great branches of knowledge can be connected by a web of verifiable causal connections or they cannot” (vii). For Wilson, consilience means that the various branches of knowledge support each other to form a unified whole—the laws of physics explain chemistry, the laws of chemistry explain biology, and the laws of biology explain the behavior of living things, including humans and their arts—and none contradict the other. The upshot of this, for our purposes, is that on a consilient view the evidence from the biological sciences must constrain ecocriticism. Human behavior, whether deforestation or ecocriticism of it, is determined by a complex interaction between genes and culture, “with biology guiding and environment specifying” (Wilson viii). Neither the brain nor the environment are blank slates, but rather the interrelated product of millions of years of evolution, both full of adaptations produced by natural selection. The stories we tell about our environment shape the way we treat it, and the way we tell stories has been shaped by millions of years of environment.

This view runs counter to the social constructivism mentioned by Wilson and current in literary criticism, a culturally relativist view which asserts that culture alone can explain human values, beliefs, and behavior and, furthermore, that science is “just one way of knowing.” But in a consilient ecocriticism empirical evidence is brought to bear. Ecological destruction is about testable data, and if ecocriticism is to be consilient with empirical ecology, it must be prepared to drop its support of positions that are not only not empirically demonstrable but, what is worse, empirically falsifiable.

A pertinent example for ecocriticism is the idea that whatever is natural is good, and whatever is good is natural. The fact is our moral sense that produces the very concepts of good and evil is itself a product of natural selection. Most humans are born with a variety of these “grammars”—for morality, for emotion, for symbolic representation and communication, for sexual dimorphism, for division of labor and exchange, etc.—often codified as religion, language, art, gender, economic activity, and so on. These “grammars,” and our other innate predispositions, are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but simply what has survived through time, products of differential reproductive success. The human species has survived, to date, because of the way our brain evolved. But there is a price to pay for this success. Our inherited human nature predisposes us toward conclusions that do not always square with scientific objectivity. There are severe genetic constraints on the cognitive processes that create, produce, distribute, receive, and judge symbolic representations— like art and narrative for example—of our environment. If the goal of ecocriticism is to influence people to “right” action (Wilson’s “question of ethics”), then the role of this genetic predisposition to selective reception becomes crucial.

It is well documented that story-telling, like language, begins early, at around nine months, and is completely functional by age six (Tomasello). It develops spontaneously in all humans, is present in every culture, and is unavoidable. There is a narrative proclivity hard-wired into the human mind, waiting only to be triggered by exposure to the social world in infancy and then exploding when language becomes available (Bruener; Donald). What has not been so easy to determine is how the adaptive function of narrative works in human cultures. We know symbolic representation has historically been a means to control the relations within and between human societies, and also to control relations between human societies and nature.

For example, the earliest theater developed from myth and ritual which narrated and explained the world, and also attempted to control it.  Examples include the Memphite Drama, treating the death and resurrection of Osiris—the god personifying the self-renovation of Nature—and performed each year on the first day of spring in ancient Egypt. Another example is the Abydos Passion Play, which also treated the death and resurrection of Osiris. Both date from around 2500 B.C. There are also similar Sumerian, Babylonian, Hittite, and Canaanite examples from this same period (Gaster). Later, Greek tragedy developed out of the dithyrambs or hymns sung, chanted, and danced in honor of Dionysius—the god representing the fertility of Nature—and many other cultures cite similar mythopoetic origins for their protonarratives and religious rites, all of which contained components for both intra- and extrasocial control.

In the 1960’s ecological anthropology (and Marvin Harris’s related cultural materialism) came on the scene, thanks primarily to Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors (1968). In this book, Rappaport analyzes the ten- to twenty-year ritual cycle of the Tsembaga Maring of colonial New Guinea. The primary contribution of the book is to show that myth and ritual are functional elements in maintaining both intra- and extrasocial relations (or ecological balance). The stories the Tsembaga tell refer to the supernatural at the manifest level, but to the natural at the latent level, and so enable human populations to optimize their adaptations to the environment and to maintain undegraded local and regional ecosystems. Importantly, this happens in spite of the fact that they are unaware of this process, and so have quite different readings of their own myths and rituals. The details of our stories vary from culture to culture, but their ultimate function does not. The Aztecs, who lacked animal protein, ate humans for religious reasons, while in India cows, essential for hydraulic agriculture, were not consumed for the same reasons. And in both societies, religious narratives also explained and maintained the social caste system. But the question remains, How does society accomplish this?

Evolutionary biology asserts that natural selection allows individuals to work selfishly (selfish genes?) in ways that also, inadvertently and indirectly, promote the success of the species as a whole. Interestingly, modern economics deals with this same problem of social coordination by positing a self-regulating market “led by an invisible hand [of God] to promote an end which was no part of his [the individual’s] intention” (Smith 477).  As in genetic selection, private selfishness is converted into socially desirable consequences. Economists even go so far as to assert there is too much information for conscious, central planning to work, hence the demise of the former Soviet Union. And so, like Saussure’s Langue, we all participate in a system of which we are but a part and over which we have no control. The economists’ explanation is that “market forces” find a general equilibrium, what they call a Pareto Optimality or optimal efficiency, through the selfish actions of individuals, much like ecosystems and natural selection do.

Both economics and natural selection are driven by the relations between natural resources, or nature, and human resources, or society. Interestingly, these are the same relations treated in ecocriticism, which deals, albeit a bit more specifically, with the relations between literature and the natural environment. It would appear there are parallels in how our various systems for symbolizing the relations between humans and the natural world—myth, fiction, price, money—function. Indeed, one might almost say they are the same system. And one might also wonder if ecocriticism itself is but another element in this same system of symbolic representation. Remember, our propensity for story telling is not only hard-wired into us, but beyond our control, so that the stories ecocriticsm tells, if they are to gain traction, must function on both the manifest and latent levels. They must be aesthetically pleasing and, like the Tsembaga myths, also carry, or reflect, the deeper truths demanded by current socioenvironmental relations.

If, as mentioned above, the goal of ecocriticsm is to bring about positive actions, then it needs to understand how the hidden hand of social narrative functions. To not know this is to risk wasting effort in futile attempts that are precluded from success by human nature. Because natural selection does not anticipate future needs (Wilson 48; Wallace237; Dawkins passim), human exchange must be a cause of narrative rather than an effect. That is, as exchange expanded, more and better social communication systems were selected for.

The anthropological record tells us modern humans have always traded with each other—seashells, amber, seal skins, flint tools, and much more are found far from their sources by the Upper Paleolithic (beginning around 40, 000 years ago)—and that a rise in exchange coincided with rising standards of living from the Middle to the Upper Paleolithic. This “evolutionary explosion” (Pfeiffer) in the Upper Paleolithic includes a spectacular expansion of technology (Ambrose) and art (Balter 1999), and also includes the first evidence of the burial of human cadavers (Bowler et al.; Gillespie). Based upon the fossil evidence (brain size, throat shape, dimensions of hypoglossal canal and spinal cord) and the archeological evidence of cultural production, it is thought that fully human language was in place at the time of this cognitive “big bang” (Mithen), around forty to fifty thousand years ago.

All the evidence points to the co-evolution of human culture, society, and the human brain, in response to the demands of the constantly changing natural environment (Calvin).  The restrictions imposed upon brain and skull size by the dimensions of the human birth canal, vertical stability, and locomotion—at our present cranial size humans have more obstetric problems than any other mammal yet bipedal locomotion prohibits increased pelvic size—were overcome by an increasing both the invagination (folding) of the brain and the number of connections in the neural networks through synaptic changes at the dendritic level. It has been suggested (Crawford et al) that a diet rich in Omega3 and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, played an important role in brain development, as DHA is the most important fatty acid used in photoreceptor and synaptic actions. It is available in the lacustrine and marine food chain near which the fossil record demonstrates early hominids tended to settle.

Robert Solso points additionally to the overall dietary changes, including the consumption of animal protein, enjoyed by early humans. He argues better nutrition played a role in improving cognitive capacity, which in turn, in a relation of positive feedback, resulted in enhanced living conditions, which supported both improved diet and increased cognitive activity: “It is not coincidental that the first vestiges of wall drawings, amulets, and stone decorations appeared about this time” (116).

Additionally, as Steven Pinker points out, recent advances in molecular and population genetics demonstrate that language shows evidence of a history of selection. He cites studies that have identified a gene on Chromosome 7, FOXP2, which is associated with Specific Language Impairment Syndrome, and whose normal allele “plays a causal role in the development of the brain circuitry underlying language and speech, rather than merely disrupting that circuitry when mutated” (34). He goes on to affirm there are many genes for language, and discusses other loci, distinct from FOXP2, as well as detailing quantitative data which demonstrate a history of genetic selection based on statistical patterns of variation among genes (Krietman; Przeworski et al.). Finally, Enard et al. report in Nature that the FOXP2 gene has been a target of direct selection in humans for “the last 200,000 years of human history” (3). Dean Hamer reports a statistically significant relation between the VMAT2 gene and spirituality in humans. Humans are genetically disposed “to believe in things they cannot see, smell, taste, hear, or touch” (6), precisely the kinds of things narratives ask them to believe.

The chance meeting of numerous factors—climatic, genetic, dietary, environmental—produced cognitive adaptations that enabled Homo sapiens to avoid predators, eliminate the competition, including perhaps Neanderthals and other hominids, survive an Ice Age, develop art, culture, language, religion, science, technology, and narrative, and (over)populate the entire planet in the process. These adaptations, including narrative, evolved in response to environmental changes. They enabled and enable society to regulate its relation with its changing environment. This same narrative proclivity still operates today.

Perhaps by reverse engineering narrative, ecocriticsm can find the ultimate causes of environmental destruction, a special case of general human exchange, and so understand how to achieve changes in the causes rather than in the effects. Things like global warming and deforestation are the proximate causes of the narratives produced by ecocriticism, but the ultimate cause is the system of symbolic representation and exchange that mediates the relations between nature and society. To bring about positive action requires a consilient knowledge of the various constituent parts of this system, and an ecocriticsm that is not consilient with the other branches of knowledge is necessarily incapable of purposefully bringing about positive action. Ecocriticism needs accurate knowledge about the environment and also about itself.

This means data must be objectively verified, to avoid the irrational fears that are so easily stirred in our hard-wired fear responses. A current example is the opposition to the so-called frankenfoods, genetically modified foods that are in fact beneficial and which have never been shown to be harmful (Report EUR). Once the correct data are acquired, the temptation is to present them in such a way as to promote an emotional response that triggers the “appropriate” ethical action, if indeed such ethical manipulation is the goal, and here the ethical double bind becomes apparent.  But until one actually knows how to do this the temptation is more apparent than real. Advertising, marketing, and politics do not so much construct society as react to existing innate propensities. Globalization, deforestation, and global warming have all occurred during a period in which the ruling intellectual theory has been social constructivism and a concomitant activism predicated upon it. The failure of this theoretical project—we may now add global recession, holy war, and overpopulation to global warming and deforestation—seems reason enough to get both the data and the theory right next time. Until you’ve got these right, one wonders about the efficacy of good intentions. And so until the data are consilient, it seems problematic to plot a course for advocacy.

Works Cited

Ambrose, S.H. “Paleolithic Technology and Human Evolution.” Science 291 (2001):     1748-53.

Bowler, J.M., et al. “Pleistocene Human Remains from Australia.” World Archaeology 2 (1970): 39-60

Bruner, J.S. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

Calvin, William H. A Brain for All Seasons. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.

Crawford, M.A., et al. “Evidence for the Unique Function of DHA During the Evolution of the Modern Hominid Brain.” Lipids 34 (1999): 39-47.

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. NY: Basic Books, 1995.

Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

duBois, Page. Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women.    Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Enard, Wolfgang., et al. “Molecular Evolution of FOXP2, a Gene Involved in Speech and Language.” Nature 418 (2002): 869-72.

Gaster, Theodor. Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Near East. New York: n.p., 1950.

Gillespie, R. “Alternative Time Scales: A Critical Review of Willandra Lakes Dating.” Archaeology in Oceania 33.3 (1998): 169-82.

Kreitman, M. “Methods to Detect Selection in Populations with Applications to the Human.” Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics (2000): 539-59.

Mithen, S. The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thanmes and Hudson, 1996.

Pfeiffer, J.E. The Emergence of Humankind. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Pinker, Steven, and Paul Bloom. “Natural Language and Natural Selection.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 (1990): 707-84.

Przeworski, M., R.R. Hudsom, and A. Di Rienzo. “Adjusting the Focus on Human Variations.” Trends in Genetics 16 (2000): 296-302.

Rappaport, Roy A. Pigs for the Ancestors. New Haven: Yale Paperbacks, 1969.

Report EUR 19884. “EC-sponsored research on safety of genetically modified organisms—A review of results.” European Union Office for Publications.    Brussels, 2001.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.

Solso, Robert. The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain.  Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2003.

Tomasello, M. “Understanding the Self as Social agent.” P. Rochat, Ed. The Self in Infancy: Theory and Research. Amsterdam; Elsevier, 1995. 449-60.

Wallace, Alfred R. My Life: A Record of Events and Ideas. London: Hapman and Hall, 1908.

Wilson, E.O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf, 1998.

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