Thursday, June 29, 2006

View From the Flip Side

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan starts off from roughly the premise that follows. Think of the flower and the bee. The bee thinks that he's just out gathering nectar from the flowers to make delicious honey (Mmm...delicious honey). He's also getting pollen on his legs while he does this, and unknowingly carries it to the next flower he pillages for nectar (with which he will make delicious honey, mmm, honey). Thus is he an agent in the reproductive cycle of the flower--in some evolutionary sense of the idea, the flower has gotten the bee to spread its genetic material for it, ensuring its survival. Now think of the corn plant, from the same perspective: here is a plant that is so incredibly successful that it has an highly advanced and mechanized animal (man) clearing entire forests and putting down nitrogen fertilizers just so the plant can grow for another generation. Sure, it's so that we can eat the plant, but as far as the corn gene is concerned, an individual corn plant isn't the point, is it? Wolves seem sharper, fiercer, more free, and more resourceful than the common domesticated dog, but in America today there are 10,000 wolves and 50 million dogs. So which animal is "smarter" about figuring out the world and how to survive and prosper in it?

In this blog I spend a lot of time arguing that you and I are the assembled sum of our genetic material, environment, and timeliness of our births; that, e.g., the idea that you have some sort of distinct "you-ness" that is constant across time and space, that you could be born in some other time and place and still be you is fallacious. It's not that I don't believe that there aren't aspects of our selves that are outside of genetic makeup and context, more that I think these aspects are shared among all of humanity, possibly all of life. This is, more or less, the evolutionary view of existence, and it's only when you (and by "you" I mean "I") read a book like The Botany Of Desire do you realize how contrary to your everyday perspective on your own existence this view is.

I once argued (in such extreme passing that you almost certainly missed it) that our own consciousness, our unique human intelligence, is nothing more than the acquired sum of billions of years of evolutionary accidents/designs like the flower "figuring out" that it can use the bee to spread its genes. In other words, it's not that the billion-year process of evolution that looks like the work of an intelligent actor (thus causing people to think it must be God, for some definition of "God"), it's that what we think of as intelligence and/or consciousness is the connected sum of billions of these accidents/designs. The only difference is that we've evolved that connected sum into a brain that can perform new actions like this in hours or minutes or seconds instead of over the course of thousands or millions of years.

Go back to the flower and the bee: if you look at the world this way, your view on consciousness is essentially how much agency you give the flower in its "decision" to use the bee to transmit pollen. What you're using to read and understand this post or decide what to eat for dinner or blog about tomorrow is the result of some uncountable number of those evolutionary "decisions." Don't think about it that way for too long, though, because probably your connected sum of evolutionary happenstance will explode.

Next: There it was, your moment of zen
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