Reanimating the living world

Each year, Edge.org asks contributors to respond to their annual question. In 2014, the question was: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? There were 174 interesting responses, but one that got my attention was written by Scott Sampson (author, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life). The idea that Sampson would like to see abandoned is our tendency to think of nature as a collection of objects. It is these objects that we believe we measure, test and study. Sampson identifies this perspective with the “centuries-old trend toward reductionism.”

Reductionist tendencies have been challenged on many fronts, often with an appeal to the notion of emergence – emergent structures, phenomena, or behavior. But our reliance on objectivity is fundamental to our appreciation of science and the task of refining it to reflect the value of many new insights is a formidable one. Yet, I would argue, a re-evaluation of scientific habits of mind is both necessary and inevitable. Sampson makes the point:

An alternative worldview is called for, one that reanimates the living world. This mindshift, in turn, will require no less than the subjectification of nature. Of course, the notion of nature-as-subjects is not new. Indigenous peoples around the globe tend to view themselves as embedded in animate landscapes replete with relatives; we have much to learn from this ancient wisdom.

Ancient wisdoms are difficult to translate into scientific perspectives. But a number of modern ideas share something with ancient world views nonetheless. These perspectives often demonstrate an emphasis on relationship over substance. And in no small way, they have been aided by the growth of mathematical ideas. The many possibilities for structure that mathematical relations provide have now been effectively employed in biology and cognitive science, as well as physics. Sampson ties an investigation of pattern and form to Leonardo da Vinci whose name always calls to mind the passionate commingling of art and science. And Sampson argues:

The science of patterns has seen a recent resurgence, with abundant attention directed toward such fields as ecology and complex adaptive systems. Yet we’ve only scratched the surface, and much more integrative work remains to be done that could help us understand relationships.

Perhaps even more directly connected to the reanimation or, as Sampson puts it, the subjectification of nature, is work recently reported on the lives of plants. An article in New Scientist (December 3, 2014) provides some of the history of this work as well as current findings.

… in 1900, Indian biophysicist Jagdish Chandra Bose began a series of experiments that laid the groundwork for what some today call “plant neurobiology”. He argued that plants actively explore their environments, and are capable of learning and modifying their behaviour to suit their purposes. Key to all this, he said, was a plant nervous system. Located primarily in the phloem, the vascular tissue used to transport nutrients, Bose believed this allowed information to travel around the organism via electrical signals.

Bose was also well ahead of his time. It wasn’t until 1992 that his idea of widespread electrical signaling in plants received strong support when researchers discovered that wounding a tomato plant results in a plant-wide production of certain proteins – and the speed of the response could only be due to electrical signals and not chemical signals traveling via the phloem as had been assumed. The door to the study of plant behaviour was opened.

The article quotes Daniel Chamovitz, (What A Plant Knows):

Plants are acutely aware of their environment,” says Chamovitz. “They are aware of the direction of the light and quality of the light. They communicate with each other with chemicals, whether we want to call this taste, or smell, or pheromones. Plants ‘know’ when they are being touched, or when they are being shook by the wind. They integrate all of this information precisely. And they do all of this integration in the absence of a neural system.

In June 2013, I wrote about researchers who claimed that plants do arithmetic. All of this work not only tells us something about plants, but it broadens our sense for what it means ‘to know,’ what knowing is, and how it happens.

Returning to Sampson, he made this point early in his essay:

To subjectify is to interiorize, such that the exterior world interpenetrates our interior world. Whereas the relationships we share with subjects often tap into our hearts, objects are dead to our emotions. Finding ourselves in relationship, the boundaries of self can become permeable and blurred. Many of us have experienced such transcendent feelings during interactions with nonhuman nature, from pets to forests.

“Interiorizing” is an interesting idea. And I think mathematics may have a role to play in understanding what this could mean on a large scale. Mathematics grows with pure introspection yet seems to be found everywhere around us. It may very well reflect an aspect of nature that is both internal and external in our experience, blurring the boundaries of self. Probability models are used in physics as well as cognitive science, complex systems theories have been applied in biology, economics and technology. In finding sameness among things that appear to be distinct, mathematics discourages separation and, as I see it, objectification.

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