NATURE'S WEB

An Exploration of Ecological Thinking

Peter Marshall

Simon and Shuster, London, 1992.


Marshall provides a substantial overview of religious, mystical, philosophical, and scientific accounts of nature, ending with a useful discussion of the rivalries of envirnonmentalism, deep ecology and social ecology, and offering a libertarian synthesis of his own.

Unfortunately, we seem to have here, yet again, a book combining straw-man misrepresentations of science with a gullible, over-awed approach to pseudo-science and its affiliates.

Following Fuller's advice, let's start with the Universe and narrow the focus from there. Referring to Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system, he writes that,

"It destroyed at a stroke the Ptolemaic and medieval view of the geocentric universe, by asserting that the sun was at the centre." (p.171)

First of all, notice the rather telling use of the word "asserting". It would be more correct to say "proposing", as Gribbin does, for instance, in his Companion to the Cosmos. I mention this because so many of the mystical and religious claims that Marshall is elsewhere sympathetic to proceed largely on the basis of mere assertion, without a shred of evidence offered, or any coherent system of thought to support the speculations. I suggest here that he is talking as if this were also how science goes about its business.

Secondly, the effect of Copernicus' published work was by no means as instantaneous as Marshall claims. As Gribbin says,

"At first, the idea of a heliocentric Universe was neither seen as obviously being an improvement on Ptolemaic ideas, nor... strongly opposed by the Church. A key problem with the Copernican model was that it still dealt with circular orbits, and therefore still required the complicated use of epicycles, so that it did not at first sight look much simpler than the older model. Many people also simply could not accept that the Earth was flying through space." (p.90)

More of Marshall's shaky history is displayed here:

"In the twentieth century, the Copernican system was once again challenged and a new paradigm emerged. The sun of our galaxy is no longer the centre of the universe but one of a stream of countless suns." (p.164)

At the back of his Companion, Gribbin notes,

"1700s: Immanuel Kant suggests that distant nebulae might be complete star systems beyond the Milky Way." (p.451)

"1773: From studies of the 'proper motion' of the stars, William Herschel infers that the Sun and Solar System are moving in the direction of the constellation Hercules." (p.455)

Chaos theory, which is usually good value in books like Marshall's, implies that,

"the universe may not be ruled by eternal, unchanging laws but this does not mean that the observed regularities in nature are nonexistent." (p.382)

Directly adjacent, on the facing page, we have:

"complex systems may remain subject to general laws or principles which do not necessarily conflict with the underlying laws of physics." (p.383)

Another reliable muddle is the concept of energy.

"The second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of a closed system must increase, means that all life must end." (p.386)

But then he goes on to confuse local, short-term processes (and open systems) with the total, universal trend, contradicting himself:

"Yet the invevitable death of some organisms enables others to live; it is part of the endless renewal of life on earth which swims against the current of entropy."

Then, bizarrely, he seems to say that the first law (which he never mentions) is redundant, being deducible from the second:

"The second law of thermodynamics can also be interpreted to mean that energy is conserved, and therefore there cannot be an energy crisis, as popular ecologists make out."

(For the first law and more on thermodynamics, see Angrist.)

Then we find that "scientists are increasingly recognizing the ability of matter and energy to organize itself", as if chemistry had just been inaugurated a few years ago.

Once Marshall allows himself these liberties, it is no surprise that he is found frolicking with the alchemists.

"It seems that Taoists used alchemy along with yogic practices as a way of bringing natural energies into harmony." (p.153)

You can also try "using" a silhouette of George Formby carved out of a biscuit.

"According to the great Muslim mystic and alchemist Muhyi'd-Din ibn'Arabi... the essence of lead is gold." (p.156)

Greatness, indeed. And yet,

"Alchemy however, like its cousin smelting [ ! ], is still considered suspect by some." (p.154)

It is perhaps because Marshall is impressed by metaphysical scholasticism that he exaggerates the prescience of that remarkable philosopher, Spinoza, whose Ethics expresses with Euclidean rigour a unified, i.e. monistic, account of the universe. It is going too far, though, to claim that Spinoza construed his universe in modern energetic terms, much as I admire Spinoza's work and would be pleased if it were free of the inert essences of his metaphysics.

In any case, another misrepresentation is at work here.

"By describing the physical world in terms of 'motion-and-rest', he conceives it as an all-inclusive, self-generating and self-maintaining system of interactions in which the total amount of energy is constant. This dynamic concept of the universe as a configuration of energy is a considerable advance on Newton's and Descartes' mechanical one and fits in well with the findings of modern physics and ecology." (p.204)

Marshall's bibliography omits Spinoza's Ethics, but includes Stuart Hampshire's Spinoza, where we can trace this passage:

"It seems natural to translate the new unfamiliar phrase 'Motion-and-Rest' as 'energy'; one can then represent Spinoza as in effect saying that the extended world is to be conceived as a closed mechanical system..." (p.71)

Note that Marshall detaches the despised term "mechanical" from Spinoza. Hampshire continues:

"But it must be remembered that such interpretations, although incidentally illuminating, are not to be taken as direct and literal translations; for concepts such as force and energy, as they occur in modern physical theories, are not metaphysical concepts..."

Marshall is also lost when referring to systems:

"while systems theory may be suggestive for closed systems... it is more problematical for open systems and for describing the relationships between different systems." (p.345)

The pioneer of General System Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, wrote (in 1950):

"In physics, the theory of open systems leads to fundamental new principles. It is indeed the more general theory, the restriction of kinetics and thermodynamics to closed systems concerning only a rather special case. In biology, it first of all accounts for many characteristics of living systems that have appeared to be in contradiction to the laws of physics, and have been considered hitherto as vitalistic features. Second, the consideration of organisms as open systems yields quantitative laws of important biological phenomena." (Emery, vol.1, p.84)

Marshall blunders on:

"Its fundamental assumption is based on a notion of rest - all remains in a state of homeostasis unless disturbed by fluctuations."

A pencil balanced on its point is in a state of unstable equilibrium; lying on the desk, it is in stable equilibrium, i.e. at rest. This is a radically different state from homeostasis, and we see that Marshall doesn't grasp the first thing about systems.

"Homeostasis is different from equilibrium. A point of equilibrium in a system is that point at which, given the constraints internal and external to the system, entropy is at a maximum. The homeostatic level is anything, as far as we know, but a point of maximum entropy; in fact the organism is almost continuously taking action to decrease its entropy in order to maintain its homeostatic levels." (N. Jordan, in Emery, vol.2, p.28)

In the same paragraph, Marshall associates the metaphor of Spaceship Earth with Kenneth Boulding rather than with Fuller (who is nowhere mentioned in the book), saying that,

"Boulding's metaphor is misleading because it implies that humans are pilots and engineers in charge of spaceship Earth rather than one species among others travelling along in the odyssey of evolution."

Odd, then, that on the very next page he writes:

"Ecology can undoubtedly help us appreciate the direction of the winds and currents as we sail our boat on the unknown seas of the universe, but it remains to be seen whether our steering will be effective." (p.346)

He proceeds with one of several fanciful chapter-endings:

"All the same, as we ride the waves of evolution, we can avoid killing the whale below and the albatross above on our exhilarating voyage of discovery."

Other favourites in this vein are Chapter 21's flat-flooted flat-earthism:

"This new Enlightened Romanticism... would dance on the edge of the world to the music of the spheres." (p.298);

Chapter 29's

"True spirituality... does not dwell on particulars but flows with the stream of universal energy." (p.412)

(It went thataway!?);

and the book's conclusion:

"Humanity is on a rope over an abyss stretched between the past and the future, between its animal ancestry and its unknown potential. If we do not reverse our present trend, we may well fall and be lost into swirling space." (p.462)

This leads us neatly to the problem of time.

"The mind-boggling implication [of special relativity] is that events should be considered timeless phenomena and the future is enfolded in the past: whatever will be, now is!" (p.376)

So boggled is he, that, discussing Heidegger elsewhere, he writes,

"In a sense, the future comes before the present, for present action is a realization of future projects." (p.369),

and reverses the order of the title of Heidegger's magnum opus to "Time and Being" (p.368). Similarly, on p.206, he manages some time-travel for a great favourite of mine, Rabelais (1494-1553), calling him a "near contemporary" of Spinoza (1632-1677).

Necessarily, Marshall misrepresents Dawkins' selfish gene concept:

"Dawkins' celebration of the 'selfish gene'... assumes that human nature is fundamentally aggressive and territorial..." (p.336)

Yet he is quite uncritical about Sheldrake's "morphic fields" and their neo-Lamarckian features:

"As a pattern of behaviour of an organism becomes increasingly habitual, a cumulative memory will emerge which will be passed onto its offspring.[...] He claims that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that morphic fields exist in nature. Although their existence may not be verified through experimental investigation, their effects are observable and testable. If true, the hypothesis certainly adds a missing dimension to Darwin's theory of evolution." (p.389)

By the latter, I assume he means that he can drag auras, ghosts and telepathy back into the game. But perhaps this is already achieved:

"Hans Driesch... postulated in The Philosophy of the Organic (1909) a 'dynamic teleology', a kind of life force behind everything in the universe... The theory introduced a vitalist and indeterminate factor into the determinist physics of the day - a factor which only became acceptable in the wider scientific community with the development of quantum theory." (p.334)

By p.399, Marshall is saying that the Gaia hypothesis "supports the view of modern physicists that the universe is more like an organism than a machine." Eventually, on p.445, he is talking to rocks:

"foxes and frogs, mountains and lakes, ecosystems and habitats, stones and raindrops, and the vibrating earth itself are all included in the category of the living."

Vitalism gone mad.



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