the existing and the emerging

an essay in the series views from the mountains

first: July 7, 2019, last: October 27, 2019 leave a comment

In our times, deep transformations occur on ever shorter intervals of time. One instance are social interactions, which used to arise in personal encounters but now happen on technological platforms. Another one is the occurrence and, more importantly, the perception of global environmental change. Many of these transformations complete within our lifetime, some actually even faster.

Besides the increasing rapidity of transformations, cultural aspects become ever more important in our lifes while concomitedly natural aspects tend to become less dominating. For instance, I worry about the punctuality of trains, the availability of a WLAN, or the quality of the mango I am about to buy. In contrast, I do not worry much about the season or about the local harvest of apples.

Ever shorter time intervals in conjunction with increasing importance of cultural developments on the one hand and on the other essentially invariable time scales for natural processes, including my own physical being, warrants some reflection on nature, on culture, and on the link between the two.

Nature

Nature is the mountain slope on which I stand, the trees and clouds, the gargling creek, the marmots, the eagles high above, you and me. It is also the marmots’ caves, the eagles’ nests, those of the ants, and the city of Beijing. It is this marvelously complicated world, many-layered and many-facetted, the world that unfolds out of itself, maintains and supports itself, including you and me. Nature is the objectively existing, the same for everyone, tangible whenever I am in doubt, or just for curiosity, and despite its ever changing face it is fundamentally immutable, as we came to understand.

Nature is also the city of Nairobi, the Antarctic highland, and the Moon, where I have never been to, never touched anything. But others have and they tell stories I hear and believe. It is the atoms, electrons, and nucleons nobody has ever seen. Yet instruments can observe and manipulate them, and I can see the effects. Nature is also the Universe nobody has ever touched, manipulated and observed the effect. We still observe the multitude of its manifestations, however, think, and suspected, probably more than that, that it too exists objectively.

Culture

Culture is concerts, art galleries, drinking exquisite tea with guests, heated discussions on protecting our environment and the existence of God. Some perceive it as genuinely human. This is not the case, however. Culture is also the birds’ twittering at dawn and dusk for marking and negotiating their territory – a habit just recently learned and adapted also by humans for their heralding. It is the bees’ dance to guide their fellows to food sources, the ants’ chemical trails for dynamically mapping out their world, the whales’ songs for communicating over distances well beyond a thousand kilometers using a surprisingly complicated language.

Culture apparently is not primordial but is something secondary, something dependent, since its essence is to relate. The primordial it refers to is Nature, our physical, objectively existing world. Culture of course may also be self-referencing. But this emerges only beyond the more primitive stages of its unfolding.

And culture is also physical. As at the base everything is? The biochemical basis of my imagination, for instance? While the “everything” is a projection, the physical nature of many of culture’s manifestations is obvious, my ten euro bill, that statue on the bridge, the concert tonight. This physical may indeed be a most laborious aspect of culture. It is not its essence, however, does not cause its impact. The physical is just the token, the symbol. Bees are not touched by the ants’ chemical trails, and drawing trails with different chemicals leaves the ants untouched, like a book written in Chinese leaves me marveling, but essentially untouched. The essence is the token’s meaning for those who learned it before. Culture is that intangible between somehow related beings, that makes them cooperate and love, or fight and hate, and that, eventually, may transform them into something new, individually, as a group, or as an encompassing novel individual.

…culture is a very old aspect of life, as old as life itself.

As the touchable nature reaches into the untouchable, so does culture reach into the touchable, may form it, eventually even create something new. Culture is a very old aspect of life, as old as life itself. Indeed, the first cells emerged some 3.8 billion years ago, from a communal effort of the diverse biochemistry back then. Much later, some 950 million years ago, another huge step came when a few cells associated and eventually transformed into a multicellular organism. Again much later, some 140 million years ago, the first city-like structures appeared – not from humans who back then where still very far in the future – but from nest-building termites that thereby formed the first superorganism. This culture was subsequently reinvented several times and reached the current level some 10 million years ago with leaf-cutter ants who build sophisticated subterranean living spaces sustained by advanced agriculture that includes the use of fungicides against parasites.

Humankind’s Culture

Not unique, not the first. Still humankind’s culture towers all the others by its sheer magnitude, diversity, and speed of unfolding. While we are amazed by the hierarchical structure of the whales’ language, by the complexity of the ants’ communication and distributed processing, by the innumerable other instances of diverse cultures among animals and also plants, this amazement is not because those cultures are particularly deep and sophisticated. It is because we presumed – with natural arrogance – that there is none at all, that there is a fundamental difference between us humans and all other life. We came to understand, however, that culture is a continuum across all life, with huge differences between them but still a continuum.

What is it then, our culture?

First and foremost, it is an exceedingly complicated web of strongly interlinked components. These include knowledge, languages to communicate it, operational and manufacturing capabilities together with their products, and conceptual capabilities, from understanding to truths and norms and all the way to believes, even to superstitions. While arguably all these components can also be found in the cultures of other species, at least in rudimentary forms, they are immensely further developed in human culture, often forming hierarchies, they are all present and strong simultaneously, and they are deeply interlinked, forming a coherent whole.

It is this deep development and coherence that eventually turned our culture supercritical. This led to a continuing unfolding of all components at an apparently ever greater speed, to their ever stronger self-organization, to a runaway development. Indeed, ten thousand years back, the cultures of all the other species were quite the same as they are today. Humankind’s was very different. Agriculture had just been invented at a few locations and there were only about one million people, worldwide. The first cities with their associated culture like written documents were still a few thousand years in the future. Through the ages, culture accelerated dramatically, however, so far culminating in the “Great Acceleration” that set in around 1950 and is postulated by some to lead to a singularity.

While not everybody agrees on the projection of an upcoming singularity, the rapidly expanding diversity of our produced goods and services together with the ever faster pace of our life is obvious for anyone. It becomes palpable when musing on our life and its material setting just 20 years back. That acceleration also led to an increasing global impact of humankind that is undisputed, except for the most ardent deniers of objective facts and constructors of “alternative truths”.

…it is our culture’s ever faster unfolding that is our ultimate challenge

It this flaring culture and its runaway dynamics that sets humankind apart from all the other species. That dynamics indeed already caused lasting changes in our global environment that leave a geologic trace for the times to come and led to the proclamation of a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene

Geologic epochs are distinguished from others by significant differences in rock layers with abrupt changes across the boundaries. The Anthropocene is such an epoch, it is “our epoch” the dawn of which we currently witness. It is humankind’s footprint that will be recorded and preserved in Earth’s geology for a very long time, possibly for the rest of the planet’s life.

It is sometimes said that ours is the first epoch determined and defined by a living species. This is not true, however, not true by far. The most dramatic impact of life on our planet – besides the emergence of life itself – was the invention of photosynthesis by early kins of today’s cyanobacteria. This eventually led to the oxygenation of the entire Earth system together with a fundamental reorganization of both, Earth’s geochemistry and life itself. That transition occupied some 2/3 of Earth’s lifetime so far, from the invention of photosynthesis 3.5 billion years ago to the Cambrian radiation, 541 million years ago, when the first more complicated multi-cellular organisms emerged.

The Anthropocene is the first geologic transition that was brought about (almost) consciously.

Still, the Anthropocene is special. It is the first geologic transition that was brought about (almost) consciously, by a species who gained global dominance and whose cognitive capabilities in the process evolved dramatically, far beyond our planet, far into the microscopic, and far into the complicated.

And here we stand. On the gas pedals of an immensely complicated machine, its steering wheels in our hands. And that machine is in full motion. Slowly it dawns on us that indeed it accelerates massively, already swerved off its habitual track into unknown and rough territory, and we have not an inkling on where to go, nor a decent understanding of the machine’s operation. Standing here, at the steering wheel, we ponder both, the machinery and the way to go, nature and culture, our ultimate challenge.

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