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If only we humans would stop for a moment and observe the world around us, we might discover that there ...
2021-09-29 09:00:00

Metaphors of Nature
Towards a Trans-Species Understanding

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Metaphors of Nature
Metaphors of Nature

By assuming that thought, language and culture are exclusive to humanity, we have shut ourselves off from non-human experience and knowledge. What if we finally broke away from the old Cartesian division of the world into us and the rest? The humanities make it clear today that we are not the pinnacle of wisdom because there are other modes of cognition, which are no better or worse than ours.

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What do cephalopods do when they meet deep in the sea and briefly touch each other’s tentacles? What is the intention of an octopus squirting water on the back of a disliked scientist (as described in Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science) and what determines their social preferences? What is the content of mice songs or the choreographic messages expressed by crabs? Why would a chimpanzee mother carry a dead baby on her back for as many as 40 days? Why would she eat a little of her offspring’s body, a portion too small to have any nutritional value? We have no answers to these questions – and will probably not arrive at them any time soon. Although science – humanity’s superpower – is developing rapidly also in the sphere of ethology, the methods it has at its disposal, even the most advanced, are necessarily limited by human perception. Indeed, scientific enquiry is based on a deeply internalized system of concepts and values. In short, human cognition is invariably anthropomorphic, i.e. bound by what our minds and bodies are capable of. Does this mean, however, that the worlds of non-human beings – along with their creative and meaning-making practices – have to remain radically beyond our ken?

This has not always been the case. Myths, poems and dreams store memories of trans-species co-evolution and intimacy with non-human beings. The philosopher Paola Cavalieri points out that certain pre-Socratic Greek thinkers treated animals as their kin and allies, conceiving of something like friendship with them. Empedocles of Akragas (ca. 483–423 BCE) refused to accept the ox that was traditionally offered to victors at the Olympics. Pythagoras (ca. 572–497 BCE) was a vegetarian. It was only Aristotle – the great systematizer of Greek thought – who developed a hierarchical worldview, defending slavery by arguing that some people are naturally servile, a characteristic displayed to an even greater degree by non-humans. In short, European thought emerged by displacing the non-human and excluding other beings from the sphere of ethical reflection. Benefits of this include justifying the imperious and instrumental attitude towards non-human beings and the entirety of so-called nature, culminating in 17th-century Cartesianism.

A Discourse on the Method (1637) is one of the most influential books in human history. This slim volume was indeed ground-breaking: Descartes outlines in it the modern scientific method along with division into disciplines, proposing the most famous formula of subjectivity (“I think therefore I am”), thus pushing Western philosophy oton a track it has never really left, despite certain complications along the way. Incidentally, this crucial book also contains words that have sealed the fate of animals in our culture. The author compares them to bodily machines that dazzle us with their precise construction – God being the “Great Mechanic” – yet cannot experience either themselves or the world.

Descartes argued that from a scientific perspective only humans are capable of this, because they have a soul, while other organisms operate on purely mechanical principles. Only people – though all people – have been gifted with reason. He came up with a peculiar example to support this claim, arguing that if there existed a machine faithfully imitating an animal in terms of anatomic build and look, it could not be distinguished from a living one, while a machine pretending to be human, even if it were made in the most perfect manner, could never be confused with a real person. Why? Because it would be unable to speak spontaneously and adequately: “It is not conceivable that it should put these words in different orders to correspond to the meaning of things said in its presence, as even the most dull-witted of men can do.” Thus, Descartes concluded, the rational soul “could not possibly be derived from the potentiality of matter”; consequently, it must be eternal.

A lot has changed since the times of Descartes. Today, nobody claims that animals are machines, or that causing pain to non-humans is ethically negligible. The key turning point occurred when Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) famously stated that we should not ask whether animals can think or speak, but if they suffer. The more we know, the clearer it becomes how far instrumental reason has been mistaken with regard to the non-human world. Still, people continue to view themselves as the crown of creation and are unwilling to accept a truth that – when truly internalized – would entail change in many spheres of life and move humanity from the centre stage, a place it so happily occupies, to the margins of the living and evolving environment. Although we say ‘humans’ or ‘we’, these categories are problematic since not everyone displays the same arrogance towards the rest of the world. Let us specify that this concerns a specific tendency in the development of civilization – one oriented towards conquest and control, following the logic of dominance and treating all other life on Earth as a ‘resource’. Unfortunately, this attitude represents the global mainstream. As is worth noting, at various points in history this category also included other people, e.g. women or those whom European colonizers conveniently described as ‘savages’.

The ‘rational’ package

Instrumental reason and the entire Cartesian value system – including the split into subject and object, the equation of consciousness and thought, and the identification of intellect with human symbolic language – became hugely successful. As Cavalieri notes, Descartes’s revolution coincided with the consolidation of the experimental method in science. In the case of animals, this entailed, for example, the practice of vivisection, or the study of physiological phenomena by dissecting living organisms. In order to muffle moral anxiety raised by such procedures, it was convenient to assume that animals do not suffer or feel, that they are merely objects of our cognition. In time, wedded to technology, Western science transformed civilization into a technocracy, allowing some people to live long and comfortable lives. The leap facilitated by instrumental science, fossil fuels and mass production has transformed not only the consumer market, travel and medicine, but also free time, which translates into further development and innovation – naturally, all of them truly marvellous.

However, despite its undeniable efficiency, the strategy I call the ‘Cartesian package’ has its weaknesses. The currently accelerating planetary catastrophe – involving loss of biodiversity, pollution of air, water, soil, and even space – was set in motion by instrumental reason and its belief in infinite progress. Besides wrecking Earth, we pay another price for cultivating a sense of uniqueness: loneliness. It is highly paradoxical that we experience solitude on a planet populated by multitudes of organisms. Longing for the world, we fence ourselves off from the more-than-human ecosphere with a thick, impermeable barrier. This repression is the condition necessary to sustain our civilizational status quo.

At different stages of the development of science and philosophy, this boundary was demarcated in various ways, but Western thought consistently defines human identity in opposition to external ‘nature’. According to the eco-feminist Val Plumwood, one crucial pillar in the edifice of European philosophy is the dualism of nature and culture. Its deep internalization is responsible for the problematic relationship between civilization and the rest of the natural world. Other binary oppositions we condone – male and female, body and soul, intuition and reason, matter and spirit – are derived from this fundamental rupture, which manifests, among other places, in the ways we conceive of human uniqueness. If it were true that, unlike vegetative plants and sensual animals, only humans (or more precisely: free men) can boast a rational soul, as Aristotle claimed 2000 years before Descartes, non-human nature would be entirely devoid of any rationality. If it were true that only humans can use tools, as was believed until the 1960s, it would mean that there are no traces of culture in nature, because the former is assembled with the help of tools. (In the 1960s, it was observed that other primates also use tools, just like some mammals, fish and molluscs, as was discovered later.) If only people have language, it means that the rest of the world is mute and incapable of creating meanings, while non-human beings, formed from senseless, passive matter, do not experience life like we do (or are “poor in the world”, as Heidegger put it) and realize their biological functions merely as meat-machines.

Reason is a fabulous tool that has disclosed a lot – there can be no doubt about this. Nevertheless, sometimes it obscures certain things, especially when we forget that all knowledge – even in its most advanced forms – is invariably only a tentative attempt to grasp truth. Vivisection might reveal certain physiological processes, but cannot help us to really understand animals. Whatever we know or are certain of can sometimes block the path to deeper and fuller comprehension. To recall Descartes again, the rational soul of human beings “could not possibly be derived from the potentiality of matter.” Animals cannot have souls or be aware of their own existence. This deep-seated conviction even inclines us to oppose reason or empirical discoveries so as to avoid having to change our ways of thinking.

In fact, however, many animals are profoundly aware of their existence. In 2012, an international teams of neurobiologists assembled in Cambridge to announce the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.” It states that numerous species have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological basis for self-consciousness. This is valuable information for all those who have never had a dog, cat, cow or rat – those who have probably do not need to be convinced.

It was long held that animals cannot recognize themselves in the mirror. Today, however, we know that many mammals are capable of this, while some – dolphins, for example – even give each other names in accordance with a complex system of inheritance. We know that many animals use tools, as is clearly observable among primates, who are also able to pass technical knowledge from one generation to another, thus initiating a process that lies at the foundation of culture. It was also believed for a long time that animals did not have language – probably the most serious demarcation separating humans from other beings on Earth. Now we understand that the songs of birds, whales and mice can have complex grammatical structure. Elephants convey information by thumping, while bacteria utilize an array of chemical signals. It is still widely believed that there is no symbolic language outside human society since we are allegedly the only beings capable of referring to absent objects and creating abstract meanings. Still, is it not the case that the bees’ dance, which communicates the location of pollen, has symbolic character? Why would we be so sure about this? What are bowerbirds doing when they build their unique nests from seashells, flowers, chitinous armour or even plastic caps, in order to impress females, yet do not live in them later? What are hares doing when they stand on hind legs upon seeing a fox, making themselves well visible, yet causing the hunter and the prey to call off the chase? What are squids doing when they change colours and patterns on their skin while in company, and why does the last one in the group not use the same colour as all the others? What is the chimpanzee Ai from the research centre in Kyoto expressing through her red and black paintings? And most importantly: why is it so hard to admit that we simply do not know?

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

Beyond human measure

Several currents in the 20th-century humanities have contested the ‘Cartesian package’ by demonstrating the impossibility of separating meaning from matter, i.e. the soul from the body. They include phenomenology and cognitive linguistics. The latter bases its account of how language functions on our bodily experience of the world. Finally, a new, interdisciplinary area called biosemiotics defines the mind in terms of semiotic sensitivity to the changing environment. According to researchers representing this angle, meanings are communicated at all levels of life. These processes have much more to them than the mere mechanical transmission of information, because they imply that organisms creatively partake in their lives. In order to describe how mind and consciousness were born, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposed the employment of the concept of emergence. In his view, there was never any radical ontological breach between nature and people. Even traits broadly considered to be the essence of humanity, such as the ability to think creatively and in abstract terms, to exercise empathy, to behave morally and to accumulate knowledge, all developed in the course of evolution. To put it differently, the gap between humans and other animals can be quantitative in any respect, but never qualitative. Biosemiotics goes even further, demonstrating that the creation of meaning always occurs at the level of organic matter, beginning with the formation of the first half-permeable cell membrane that defines the boundaries of simple organisms. This membrane introduces the difference between identity (of a given organism) and its surroundings (the environment). Even primitive single-cell organisms have a degree of ‘semiotic freedom’ (a term developed by Jesper Hoffmeyer). They refer signals coming from outside to their current identity, thus creating a new meaning that in turn affects them. What occurs in this process is akin to interpretation. As Wendy Wheeler argues, this is the moment when the mind is first formed.

Biosemioticians discern metaphorical structures in evolving matter. This may initially come as a surprise, since metaphors are usually associated with literature and other advanced, typically human uses of language. Certainly, metaphor is one of the fundamental tools of human cognition, which is used to establish contact with the world and create new meanings. Let us consider its operation in greater detail. According to the basic definition coined by Aristotle, metaphor is about noting similarities where none seem to exist. For example, if I say “I’m such a blockhead” after making a silly mistake, I make a link between my own head (where intellectual processes ought to occur) and a wooden block (which certainly does not think), with shape being the basis for comparison. One laboratory where new metaphors are produced is poetry, which can shift the boundaries of the known and the unknown in different ways than science – although poets can intuit things that science only comes to explain later. For example, when William Blake dreamed of seeing a world in a grain of sand, he expressed his mystical sensibility, sensing that all earthly phenomena and processes are intertwined. Today, however, this idea can be expressed in scientific categories.

Our everyday communication is highly metaphorical as well, although we rarely notice this. “I’m dead beat”, I say when I feel very tired. I lift my thumb up to show that something went well or that I’m alright. We extend a ‘warm’ welcome, are ‘crushed’ by sadness, and even sometimes ‘seethe’ with anger. All these metaphors translate abstract, emotional meanings into familiar, sensual images. Our ways of speaking about time are highly metaphorical, too. We talk about time using spatial categories because we have no direct access to the dimension of temporality. For example, the future is discussed in our culture as something that lies before us, while the past is discussed as something we have left behind. Cognitive linguistics identifies semantic domains that can be close to our sensory experience, or further away and more elusive. Metaphors translate the abstract (as well as the new, or the foreign) into that which is closer to us and better known, modifying the object in the process. They are not limited to symbolic language since it is only one possible form of communication. Metaphors can be also expressed in gestures, myths and dreams, or even – as psychoanalysis holds – through somatization. They are formed in the mind. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – authors of the seminal work Metaphors We Live By – suggest that metaphor is the basic mechanism of understanding and experiencing the larger world.

From the biosemiotic perspective, metaphor is the driving force behind natural and cultural evolution, because all organisms communicate with their surroundings, which impacts their biological fate. According to Jerome A. Feldman, author of From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language, the same can be said of more complex organisms, including people. In light of current science, it is impossible to distinguish between the innate and the acquired because learning entails structural and material change. In this way, metaphor contributes to the joint evolution of body and knowledge. At least to some extent, we are what we know: environmentally situated as well as flesh-and-blood organisms that have bodies and minds. As Merleau-Ponty argues, echoing many of today’s eco-critics, the mind is always embodied, located and connected to the senses. Pure thought – one that would be devoid of its objects – does not exist. A pure ‘I’, stripped of the world, would be simply empty.

In the animal kingdom, there is one particularly widespread metaphor that aligns two domains: the more abstract dimension of strength and the easily observable category of size. Strength is size – this is what stands behind the ruffling of feathers, the raising of quills or assuming a specific posture. Larger beings are supposed to be stronger. Visual patterns on amphibians and insects, meant to scare off or outsmart potential assailants, can also be metaphorical, e.g. when they indicate toxicity. A study recently published by scholars from the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University demonstrates that chimpanzees ‘map’ the domain of individual rank in the group on to the spatial categories of up and down. They associate higher positions in the herd with the physical position of a given individual in space (higher in space = higher in hierarchy). This is, naturally, a very simple metaphor, perhaps because chimpanzees have no other at their disposal. Still, there is also another possibility: perhaps we have grown quite accustomed to disregarding the more-than-human world and have become incapable of looking and listening in a way that would do justice to the complexity of conversations held all around us.

Why do we always measure others against our own standards and never the other way round? Maybe we should try to dance in order to show where the pollen is. As the poet Gary Snyder rightly notes, we should ask ourselves why we assume that certain aspects of human awareness should constitute a narrow standard against which we measure the consciousness or intelligence of other beings, as well as why the mind would be synonymous with thoughts, ideas, concepts and arguments. Perhaps there are also other minds that we do not have the foggiest (metaphor!) idea about. Perhaps there is knowledge that a folded brain cannot grasp without the help of pseudopodia, membranes, leaves, rhizomes or bioluminescence. David Abram – author of a fantastic book about experiencing the more-than-human world, titled The Spell of the Sensuous – reminds us that we can be fully human only when we befriend the non-human. By destroying biodiversity, we not only make it impossible for ourselves to eavesdrop on conversations that other beings are having, but also impoverish our own language, which is a powerful tool that has never been exclusively ours. By destroying the world, we destroy ourselves.

We are thus faced with the task of hearing the call of the sensuous, as Abram put it, noting the creative efforts of other beings, as well as attempting to understand and come to terms with the fact that we do not know everything and will never be able to. In our dialogue with the world, we really need to make room for others: to fall silent, listen and observe that they also shape us to a great degree. To befriend the world – would it not be a splendid point of departure for a truly trans-species modernity?


Translated from the Polish by Grzegorz Czemiel

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