At first sight, science and animism appear to be irreconcilable. Whereas over the last four centuries science has held sway with the view that nature is nothing more than a vast lifeless mechanism that can be understood and controlled by means of experiment and detached analytical reasoning, ‘animists’, in their various guises (including shamans, poets, priests and philosophers and psychologists), have for millennia professed an intuitive knowing of nature as a great soul, mind or psyche; as alive, redolent with purpose and meaning; as saturated with mysterious creativity.
Clearly, modern science and technology have brought us many benefits and are without doubt among humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements, but they have also unwittingly contributed to the massive global crisis we are now facing. In essence, science has made us clever, but it has not made us wise. If we are to have any chance of surviving the looming catastrophe that science and technology have inadvertently helped to create we will need more wisdom, not more analytical capacity, of which there is a plentiful supply. And so, along with a growing number of fellow scientists, philosophers and activists, I believe that we now urgently need to develop a new approach in science that integrates analysis with wisdom, fact with value and nature with culture (Goodwin 2007). We think that this can be done by replacing our demonstrably unwise (and until recently, unconscious) assumption that the world is an inert machine with the arguably wiser and more accurate metaphor of the world as a vast animate (and hence ‘sentient’) being. Thus, strange and trite as it may seem, the survival of civilisation itself could in part depend on a fusion of science with animism. Furthermore, given the very real dangers that seem set to befall us as a result of our impact on our planet’s climate, there is perhaps no better way to begin this work than with an animistic reformulation of our scientific understanding of the Earth.
The first question we need to explore is what an animistic approach to nature actually entails. Harvey (2005, and pp … ,this volume ?) points out that ‘animism’ has two connotations – an old, disparaging one used by colonial anthropologists who disrespected the nature-spirit worship of the cultures they studied (and helped to subjugate), and another, more modern version of the term which he suggests has more to do with respecting ‘persons’ in the widest sense of the word. We could of course refer here to the many indigenous cultures of the world, some, if not all of whom were inspired by animistic cosmologies and ways of living, but in the light of Harvey’s comments it seems more appropriate for us to bring to light the animistic sensibilities and insights that lie hidden within Western culture itself, since this is where modern science and technology originated.
Some precursors of scientific animism in the West
We begin with Thales of Miletus, the eminent pre-Socratic Ionian philosopher of the 6th century BCE who is widely recognised as one of the progenitors of modern science. He, along with several other Ionian philosophers of the time, taught that we could understand nature by focussing on the physical forces that underlie the workings of the natural world rather than on the actions of the capricious supernatural Gods who were widely believed at the time to be the prime movers behind all things. Of interest to us in our quest for an animistic science was Thales’ assertion that all matter is alive, or ‘full of Gods’. He seems to have reached this conclusion by observing that the attractive powers of rubbed amber and magnets were akin to the equivalent powers within biological entities. The emphasis on matter as sentient was never completely lost in the West, despite the gradual schism between mind and matter that gradually took root during subsequent centuries.
A major revival of these animistic ideas took place during the Renaissance, when Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and other hermeticists (such as Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)) explored the view that the material world is saturated with the enlivening influences of the anima mundi (the soul of the world), which in turn derives its power from a transcendent divine intellect. The hermiticists were inspired by (and named after) Hermes Trismegistus – a legendary figure supposed to have been the source of much ancient wisdom and learning. For these thinkers and magi, true knowledge required an understanding of how the Ideas in the divine intellect manifested in matter and in the world at large (Wertheim 1997, p88). A prominent hermeticist was Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who thought of the planets as huge animals each with its own soul, and who regarded solar systems (like our own) as the fundamental units in a universe as vast and limitless as the divine intellect itself.
However, by the end of the sixteenth and during the early seventeenth centuries the Church had instigated its murderous activities against the magi and hermeticists, of which about one million women – the so-called ‘witches’ – perished at the hands of the clerics and their agents. This was the time when the new mathematical science was in the ascendency, lead by the infamous Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) a Minim Monk, the sworn enemy of the heretical hermeticism, of the anima mundi and hence of animistic thinking in general. Mersenne favoured a purely mechanistic conception of nature compatible with the Catholic Church’s ideas about the relationship between God and his creation (Dear 1988, pp3-4). One of Mersenne’s allies was the priest Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) who described the universe as a collection of inert atoms obeying mathematical laws imposed from above by a transcendent God. In the words of Margaret Wertheim (1997, p 94), it was through Mersenne and Gassendi that “the animating spirits and souls of the world were drained away like the blood from a slaughtered calf. The self-activating universe of the magi was killed off, and in its place stood an inert machine.” But it wasn’t easy for the early mechanists to establish their dominance – they needed a champion who would conclusively demonstrate the supremacy of the mathematical way of knowing. According to Wertheim (1997) to a large extent it was Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who fulfilled this role in declaring that there was a fundamental division between the human mind (the ‘res cogitans’) and the rest of nature, which was, of course, a vast dead machine (the ‘res extensa’). Thus, according to Wertheim (1997) and others (i.e. Merchant 1990) Descartes established the principle that only a detached mathematical intellect could gain reliable knowledge of nature.
Clearly, we now urgently need to adopt a view of the world that overcomes this fundamental dualism. Father Thomas Berry (2000) sums up the world-view shift that is now needed with wonderfully succinctness when he says that we need to understand that “the universe is not a collection of objects, it is a communion of subjects”. In other words, we need to abandon the billiard ball view of the universe as a set of isolated, inert objects that interact in only the most superficial of ways, and move instead to a view in which every entity is an experiencing subject, full of creative agency, which is deeply changed through its interactions with every other entity around it. Berry points out that every so-called ‘object’ is in fact a subject with its own experience, no matter how rudimentary –it feels like something to be an electron, an atom, a molecule, an organism, an ecosystem, a planet, a universe.
An animistic science would therefore take account of this inward, ‘soulful’ nature of things. Perhaps the most important exponent of such an approach in science was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who developed an intuitive method for connecting us with the inwardness of natural phenomena which in fact can be traced back several centuries before him to Ficino and Paracelsus, and before them to the hermetic tradition. In this method, careful attention is paid to any given phenomenon being studied without attempting to reduce the experience to quantities, explanations or theories.
Goethe’s method begins with exact sensorial perception – the careful observation of the phenomenon one is working with by means of detailed drawings that show how whatever one is studying reveals itself to our physical senses. In the case of a plant, one begins the drawing at the ground (or even with the roots), and then works one’s way up to the flowers and seeds. In the next stage, exact sensorial imagination, one closes one’s eyes and visualises the coming into being of the phenomenon in great detail based on the observations made in the previous stage. In the case of a plant, one visualises the growth of the plant stage by stage and leaf by leaf until one can see the dynamical coming into being of the plant clearly in one’s mind’s eye (Colquhoun and Ewald 1996)
If this works as it should, one can have the intuitive perception of the phenomenon as an active, soulful presence within oneself, and not as an object outside one’s own being. This sense of deep relatedness to the world transforms consciousness into a means for holistic perception through which we are able to apprehend the intrinsic qualities of things as well as their inherent wholeness (Bortoft 1996). Goethian science leads us to the conclusion that ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ is not, as Descartes thought, located within the human skull and nowhere else – we realise instead (through our intuitive faculty) that these qualities are distributed throughout the universe , which is therefore, as the ancients have said, a great mind or soul in its own right.
This idea of the extended mind can be found in the writings of several key contemporary thinkers. One of the most important was Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), whose work has been ably analysed and summarised by Charlton (2008), whose synthesis I draw on in what follows. Bateson proposed that mind exists within the relationships between the material parts of a system, which in turn must be of sufficient complexity for mind to emerge. Mind therefore certainly exists in biological systems, but not necessarily in the abiotic realm of rocks, air and water. “News of difference”, constitutes the informational content of these relationships, which leads either to corrective (negative) feedback or to self-amplifying (positive) feedback within the system as a whole. This news of difference takes many forms, including changes in hormone levels, temperature, acidity, rainfall and so on, and it also manifests in communicative signals such as bird calls and insect warning colouration. For Bateson, mind is organised in nested patterns – the mind of an individual organism is found within the physiological relationships that maintain it as a seemingly discrete enitity, and the organism is itself part of the larger minds of the local population of its species, its ecological community and so on up to the planet as a living whole. Thus, every living being is part of an “eco-mental” system that includes its wider surroundings, such that if we create “insanity” in a lake by treating it badly, we will eventually feel this insanity when it feeds back into our own mental life and experience. Learning is thus a key characteristic of the process of mind. Charlton (2008 p48) points out that Bateson’s insights imply a widening of our concepts of awareness and perception, since awareness, which for Bateson is a characteristic of all mental systems, does not depend on consciousness or even self-consciousness as we experience them in our own human experience. Clearly, this view is in part justified on the grounds that almost all of our physiological functioning takes places without the involvement of consciousness.
Charlton (2008) suggests that “Bateson’s understanding of the systems of the world as “minds” is a much needed insight, an ontological re-visioning of the living Earth that we should learn to value and accept”, and it is easy to see how one can fruitfully use Bateson’s notion of mind to postulate the existence of a global mind constituted by the complex relationships amongst the planet’s various components, including the human realm of being. This, as we shall see below, creates an excellent basis for an animistic science of the Earth.
Another fruitful area of thought that lends itself well for incorporation into an animistic science of the Earth is biosemiotics, which seeks to understand living beings not only on the basis of their chemical and physical (or purely ‘mechanical’) properties, but also by observing how they interpret signs and meaning. The basic move here is to deny the validity of Descartes’ categorical assertion that only humans have minds – biosemioticians regard all biological beings as ‘minded’, in the same way that they share the basic properties of cellular structure, biochemistry and physiology. Every living creature literally knows what is happening to it since it responds to signals received from both within itself and its environment using a style of knowing unique to each species that is not necessarily symbolic or logical or even conscious in the human sense, but which nevertheless involves a mind that interprets the signals that are being received. Biosemiotics therefore places the emphasis on mental acts of cognition and interpretation by minds that are ubiquitous in the biological realm. Hence there are as many minds – as many viewpoints on the world – as there are species. The biological world is a tangled mental web woven together into a coherent whole by means of a phenomenally diverse range of signals and signs that include physical, biochemical and behavioural stimuli.
Biosemiotics is a new and growing field within science that has much to offer those who wish to transcend the dualism imposed by Descartes and his successors. In the words of Donald Favareau (2010), a key player in the field; “…if biosemiotics has any one single most constructive message to give the mainstream scientific community, surely it is precisely this: a semiotic process is not a ghostly, mental, human thought process. Rather, it is, in the first instance, nothing more nor less mysterious than that natural interface by which an organism actively negotiates the present demands of its internal biological organization with the present demands of the organization of its external surround. And the fact that this is done incessantly – by all organisms, and by us – should not blind us to the significant fact that such moment-to-moment activity is always and perpetually an enacted accomplishment – and thus one that is going to have to be explained, if we are ever to understand the biological side of living organisms’ material interactions.”
This mind-like ‘enacted accomplishment’ manifests at global ecosystem level as Gaia, our living planet. Gaia is the ancient Greek divinity of the Earth – the living soul of the sacred Earth – the ancient one – the first born of primordial Chaos – the Mother of the Gods (Hesiod, 500 BCE). In the words of Jules Cashford (2010) for the ancient Greeks, “… the physical form of Earth – ‘the foundation’, the ground we and other beings stand upon, swim through or fly over, in fact, ‘everyone in the world’ – took its reality from the sacred realm (of Gaia – my emphasis), which we acknowledge by understanding Earth as our Mother and Mother of all.” Gaia was the primordial mythical image by which the ancient Greeks ordered and understood their lives, but, to our massive detriment, this image was lost to us long ago – the Earth was last formally revered as sacred in the West about 2,500 years ago (Cashford, 2010). But as the ecological crisis deepened during the 20th century it was as if the anima mundi (or the wider mind, the collective unconscious) needed to be recognised once more through a powerful archetypal image that would inspire us all once again to revere the Earth as sacred. It is a great irony (and also a huge surprise) that the mythical image of the Earth that we so badly needed emerged within the bowels of the very enterprise that had for centuries denied the animate nature of the Earth – namely science itself.
This happened through the British scientist James Lovelock who adopted Gaia as the name (suggested to him by his friend William Golding) for his theory of a living, self-regulating Earth. It was in 1965 that Lovelock first glimpsed Gaia whilst working for NASA in their quest to find life on Mars. His investigations into the compositions of the atmospheres of Earth, Mars and Venus lead him formulate the bold and startling hypothesis that living beings on this planet have not only generated our atmosphere, but also actively regulated it, keeping it at a composition favourable for life over thousands of millions of years.
This was a radical suggestion, for until recently scientists believed that life could not have had such major impacts on the atmosphere, since living things were, after all, no more than second-class planetary citizens. It was, they said, the non-living world of rocks, atmosphere and water which determined the Earth’s key surface properties such as temperature. Living beings had to adapt to the conditions created for them by the non-living world or perish.
In contrast, the key insight of the most recent version of Lovelock’s insight – his Gaia theory (Lovelock 2005) is wonderfully holistic and non-hierarchical – it suggests that it is the Gaian system as a whole that does the regulating, that the sum of all the complex feedbacks between life, atmosphere, rocks and water give rise to Gaia, the evolving, self-regulating planetary entity that has maintained habitable conditions on the surface of our planet over vast stretches of geological time.
Gaia theory suggests that life and the non-living environment are tightly coupled, like partners in a good marriage. This means that what happens to one partner happens to the other, and implies that all the rocks on the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere and the waters have all been deeply altered by life, and vice versa. The self-regulation arising from this tight coupling is an emergent property that could not have been predicted from knowledge of biology, geology, physics or chemistry as separate disciplines. Gaia has evolved as an entirety over geological time and, like a beehive or a termite colony, is a superorganism, which for Lovelock is “an ensemble of living and non-living components which acts as a single self-regulating system”. Thus the atmosphere is a much the product of life as is a cat’s fur or the bark of a tree.
In essence, Gaia is a an archetypal image, and if it is true that we need a new myth to live by in our imperilled times (Cashford 2010) there can be no doubt that Gaia is eminently suited to the task. And of course, there is no better image for those who seek to create an animistic science of the Earth that reunites logos (rational thought), with mythos and Imagination (the intuitive faculty of the mind that connects us with the anima mundi).
Before we can begin to explore how we can weave together the various strands alluded to so far – the ‘magical’ thinking of Ficino and the hermiticists, the phenomenological science of Goethe, Bateson’s concept of mind, the insights of biosemiotics , Gaia theory, logos and mythos into a coherent animistic science of the Earth, there is one more step that needs to be taken: a brief exploration of the ways of knowing that we humans are capable of. Here we bring in the work of C.G. Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychologist who revolutionised our understanding of the psyche in its widest sense. Based on his empirical work with his many patients, Jung realised that we have four fundamental ways of knowing the world, which are, in brief, thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition. These occur as dyadic opposites, so that a person whose dominant function is thinking will be inherently less motivated to develop their feeling (and vice versa) – likewise for intuition and sensing. Thinking and feeling are evaluative, whereas intuition and sensing are not. Thinking evaluates through reason, logic and analysis, feeling through a ‘gut-knowing’ about what is right (or wrong) in any given situation. Hence feeling in this context is more about ethics than emotion, but an ethics born not from reasoning but from a deeper, more embodied reading of the world. Similarly, we receive information about the sensual qualities of our outer surroundings via our senses, whereas intuition is an inner knowing, a “spontaneous perception of wholeness” (H. Bortfot, pers. comm.) that is presented to us often fully formed from regions of the psyche beyond consciousness.
Bringing the threads together
It is now time to bring the various threads that we have explored above into a coherent outline of what an animistic science of the Earth might consist of. I will use Jung’s four ways of knowing as a template for this task, since it seems to me that the sort of science we are looking for needs to involve the entirety of the human psyche, and not just the thinking function which has dominated science as we know it. Thus, for me, an animistic science of the Earth needs to integrate our thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition into a valid way (or multiple ways) of knowing our living planet that will allow us to participate fully in her creative evolutionary journey.
One can start with the thinking function by considering Gaia as a system at a variety of different scales. We start with the chemical elements. Here, we speak of CHNOPS carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur – the six major chemical elements that are of vital importance for life on our planet. An animistic science of the Earth teaches us that chemistry need no longer be thought of in merely mechanical ways, as if ‘chemicals’ are nothing more than dead, static cogs. Chemical properties are sublimely fluid – they are the ways in which different aspects of the inner natures of the elements reveal themselves in different contexts and circumstances, just as our own behaviour is dependent to some extent on the social setting in which we find ourselves. The inner nature of the chemical elements must entail a kind of proto-subjectivity, since, in the words of philosopher J. McDaniel (ref?). “our own subjective experiences are highly developed forms of what there was in the beginning in sub-microscopic matter”, and ” ‘matter’ and ‘mind’ are simply names for different types of actual occasions of experience” For philosopher Christian De Quincey (2010, referring to the insights of great philosophers such as A.N. Whitehead), “matter tingles with experience” and “matter feels to its deepest roots” . Thus, we can no longer treat matter with disrespect, because it is, after all, sentient in some sense by virtue of having a creative agency and capacity for experience that demands our ethical consideration. We realise the profound wisdom in the etymological root of the word ‘matter’, which comes from the Latin for ‘mother’ (mater), and ‘matrix’, or womb.
If this approach is correct, then, in contrast to the mainstream view (of matter as ‘dead stuff’), we can conceive of matter as ‘alive’ – as inherently creative. For animistic scientists, matter and psyche are therefore indissoluble, for the psyche of the world resides nowhere else but in matter itself. Thus the great archetypes of Gaia and anima mundi that figure so importantly in the human soul could well be prefigured in some mysterious way not in some abstract realm far from this world, but in the very molecules and atoms that constitute our palpable, sensing bodies, and also in the very materiality of the Earth herself. Perhaps psyche becomes visible when the relationships amongst a community of interacting agents are powerful and complex enough to call it forth from within the very matrix of matter itself. If this is true – if psyche is indeed revealed in the very thick of relationship – then Gaia may well be a domain in which the presence of living beings so quickens and intensifies the planet-wide interactions amongst atoms, rocks, atmosphere and water that the Earth literally awakens and begins to experience herself as alive and sentient.
This view of the elements allows us to study their chemical properties with conventional scientific exactitude, but then to also to personify them in the sense proposed by James Hillman (1992), which involves the realisation that “To understand anything at all, we must envision it as having an independent subjective interior existence, capable of experience, obliged to a history, motivated by purposes and intentions.” This is clearly different to anthropomorphism, in which we attribute human traits to non-human entities without due care, empathy and rigorous scientific consideration. Each person’s personifications will of course bear the stamp of their own particular creativity, but all will capture something of the inherent subjectivity of, in this case, the chemical elements. Thus, careful study of the chemical properties of Gaia’s key elements (involving a consideration of their locations in the periodic table, and hence their reactivity as revealed by the configuration of their electron orbits) has lead me to personify carbon as a cooperative princely character, oxygen as a ‘passionate Italian’, hydrogen as a youthful being longing to eschew the Earth’s domain for its original home in outer space, and calcium as a dynamic, entrepreneurial princess (Harding 2009). It is as if the insights of the hermeticists have taken on a modern form, for these personifications allow animistic scientists to participate with the chemical elements as fellow beings in the body of Gaia and hence to feel more truly at home in the soul of the world.
From the chemical elements we move up in scale in our thinking to the living realm. As far as we know, the first organisms on this planet were the bacteria, which appeared some 3,500 million years ago. It is widely agreed amongst biologists that bacteria are the principal force that is at work in shaping Gaia (Markos 1995). Soon after their appearance, these tiny unicellular organisms (they are typically a few thousands of a millimetre in length) invented the biochemical art of using water as a source of hydrogen in a novel kind of oxygen-producing photosynthesis that has been fuelling the planet with solar energy ever since. Bacteria are also essential for recycling many of Gaia’s nutrients, and are the only organisms that can cycle nitrogen (a key nutrient of life) in and out of the atmosphere at ambient temperatures.
Bacteria are amazingly abundant – one gram of soil contains about 40 million bacterial cells – a millilitre (one thousands of a litre) of freshwater contains about a million bacterial cells. Thus, bacteria make up most of the biosphere’s biomass. We humans harbour about ten times as many bacterial cells relative to the number of our own cells, mostly in our large intestine, but also on our skins.
Bacteria are vastly important for an animistic understanding of the Earth because their astounding communicative abilities mean that they have created an ancient (but constantly updated) global network of information transfer that constitutes a vastly intelligent global ‘mind’ of the sort described by Bateson. The signals (in the biosemiotic sense) that are made, transmitted and actively interpreted in this network are genes, specific signalling molecules and even structural elements such as bacterial ‘nanowires’ that move electrons over relatively large distances in ways that could be analogous to the electrical activity in our own brains (Gorby, interviewed by Brahic 2010). Bacteria trade genes like we trade emails – they release small packages of genetic instructions (sometimes via viruses) coding for all manner of metabolic innovations into their surroundings that any other bacterium anywhere on Earth can incorporate into its own individual genome for read-out and implementation (Markos 1995, Markos et.al. 2010). There is thus in effect only one global bacterial species (with many types) that shares a global thesaurus of genetic information constituting a global bacterial superorganismic mind that is the foundation of the wider life and mind of Gaia as a whole.
Bacteria also produce a multitude of specially crafted signalling molecules in tiny amounts that diffuse into their surroundings, thereby giving rise to the phenomenon known as ‘quorum sensing’ whereby these molecules can be taken up and interpreted by nearby bacteria, allowing the bacterial population as a whole to monitor its own density (Ben Jacob 1998). When a given bacterial cell registers that the concentration of a specific signalling molecule (or a complex set of them) has reached a threshold concentration, it ‘realises’ that it is time to change its behaviour and proceeds to turn the appropriate genes on or off.
Bacterial chemical communication is of such startling complexity that it resembles the basic grammatical structures of human language, so much so that scientists are now talking about bacterial syntax and even about bacterial social intelligence. This sophisticated bacterial language allows for such tight coordination amongst different species in microbial colonies that they are best described as multicellular superorganisms. As in human language, the meaning of a given bacterial signal depends entirely on context, so that the same molecule will trigger a whole range of responses depending on what is going on both within and outside an individual cell. One key researcher in this field speaks of bacteria leading “rich social lives”, of developing “collective memory” and “common knowledge”, of having “group identity”, of being able to “recognise the identity of other colonies”, of “learning from experience”, of “improving themselves” and of engaging in “group decision making”, all of which add up to a social intelligence analogous to that of “primates, birds and insects”.
The relevance of all this for an animistic science of the Earth is that we can no longer think of bacteria as nothing more than mere mechanical bags of chemicals. Bacteria are deeply sentient creatures that live in a rich, meaningful communal world partially of their own making to which they respond creatively and with exquisite sensitivity. This great bacterial web is, in a way, rather like the unconscious processes that operate key aspects of our own metabolisms. There must be a seamless transition from this bacterial sentience to our own, for our very own cells are associations of once free-living bacteria that now engage in sophisticated intra-cellular communication. If our cells (and those of all other animals, plants, fungi and protoctista) are fundamentally bacterial, then a continuous thread of sentience and intelligence runs from us all right back to our earliest bacterial ancestors. The mind of Gaia is truly a bacterial mind.
The next level to consider is that of the ecosystem. We’ll focus on fungi because these organisms are critical for the survival of all terrestrial ecosystems. They decide which plant species grow in any given ecosystem, and therefore determine the composition and hence the mind-like communicative signalling of entire ecological communities. Without fungi there would be no waggle dancing bees, no bird song, no music.
Fungal bodies are networks of hollow tubes made of pipe-shaped cells joined end to end called hyphae. Hyphae are decidedly microscopic – their width varies from 1/500th to 1/100th of a millimetre. Cellular fluids flow freely and easily along the growing hyphae, which branch and fuse, creating a complex network of fungal pipelines known as a ‘mycelium’. These fusions between the individual hyphae hugely amplify the distributive power of mycelial networks and are often so numerous that mycelia often resemble cotton wool.
Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200 year old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon – a veritable behemoth that periodically kills the forest, producing deep rich soil in which taller trees can grow before their turn comes to be felled by their fungal master (Stamets 2004). The biomass of these fungal networks mycelia is immense: several tonnes of mycelium can exist in one hectare of Swedish forests.
The Gaian significance of fungi is that they specialise in interconnecting other living entities, and even other living kingdoms. They have invented the most important nutrient transport system on the planet – the mycorrhizas (‘fungus-roots’) – in which fungal tubes engage in intimate associations with the living roots of plants. These associations are essentially a mind-like in Bateson’s sense, since complex signalling molecules are required to make these associations work. Mycorrhizal fungi are like umbilical cords – they channel sugars from trees actively photosynthesising in the light to nearby trees that are starving in the shade. They also allow plants to send information (for example, about predators) to each other via special plant signalling molecules transported along fungal tubes from plant to plant, thereby mediating a networked intelligence within the world of plants.
Mycorrhizal fungi have allowed plants to colonise much of the Earth’s surface. They turned the Earth green and made it possible to fix huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air in the bulky bodies of trees, thereby influencing the Earth’s temperature. The extent of mycorrhizal support for trees is staggering. Recent estimates suggest that an individual tree can be associated with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of fungal hyphae.
What is of great interest to animistic scientists is that fungi possess and eerie intelligence, and probably a peculiar sense of self to boot. This is in part because individual hyphae in a mycelium allow fungi to create networks of phenomenal communicative power that strongly resemble our blood system or the neuronal connections in our brains. The parallel with the nervous system is more than merely metaphorical, for, like bacteria, mycelia are in some sense sentient and aware. According to Paul Stamets (2004), mycelia are nothing less than the “neurological network of nature” which sense the movements of organisms upon the land and the impact of falling tree branches on the ground (potential food for decomposing fungi) thanks to complex signalling molecules that course through the communal spaces of their interlocking pipelines. Mycologists Alan Rayner and Christian Taylor describe fungi as ‘brains in the soil’ that have no need of the bodily appendages and organs which encumber animals such as ourselves. Fungi lack our sense organs and our high degree of neurological development, but they have a keen taste for the chemical environment around them. Like all good brains, fungi solve problems (where to find food and mates, with whom to make partnerships). Fungi think slowly. They lack the fast track neuronal paraphernalia of the animal kingdom, but this gives them time to make good decisions.
Finally, we arrive at Gaia – the level of the global ecosystem. Here animistic scientists are interested in the complex networks of information transfer that give the planet its coherence as an intelligent, self-regulating living entity. The key to these networks is the communicative interface between the living and non-living components of the planetary system. Perhaps the most important process here is the long-term carbon cycle which has regulated the planetary temperature within the narrow limits suitable for life over thousands of millions of years. What kind of mental processes could be involved here, and where do they take place?
One key site is the interface between silicate rocks, such as granite and basalt, and soils. The first step takes place when rainwater combines with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create carbonic acid, which then chemically weathers the rock, thereby combining carbon atoms in the carbonic acid with calcium ions within the rock, producing a solution of calcium bicarbonate which holds within it carbon atoms that were once in the atmosphere. Hence the weathering of granite and basalt cools the Earth. So far, only the proto-intelligences of the chemical realm have been involved, but the process would fail without the participation of the more sophisticated sentience of the biological world. Plant roots are important here, because in their incessant hunt for nutrients they physically fracture the rock and exude their own acids onto it. They also contribute to the formation of soil, which, as we have seen, houses abundant communities of bacteria and fungi which also fracture the rock and secrete rock-dissolving acids. The entire soil community also exhales carbon dioxide onto the multitude of rock particles that result from their physical fracturing of the rock. Furthermore, rainwater easily reaches the rock particles through the porosity of the soil. Thus the combined intelligences of the biota help to amplify the chemical rock weathering of granite and basalt by up to 1000 times.
The calcium bicarbonate is washed to the sea by rivers, where it is absorbed by tiny marine algae which solidify it into chalk – calcium carbonate. When these algae die the chalk (and hence the carbon it contains) is deposited in ocean sediments that are slowly transferred to subduction zones at the edges of the continents by the conveyor belt process of plate tectonics. Here, some of the chalk is subducted and melted deep under the Earth, releasing carbon dioxide that returns to the atmosphere via volcanoes.
When thought of mechanistically, the whole system appears as no more than a negative feedback: the planet’s temperature increases when volcanoes spew out carbon dioxide, and so does rainfall since more water evaporates from the oceans in a warmer world. The rock-weathering biota grow better and weather more silicate rock, which takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, thereby cooling the planet. But now, on a cooler and hence drier Earth, the rock weathering biota grow less well and so weather less silicate rock, which allows carbon dioxide to build up in the atmosphere via volcanoes, once again warming the Earth.
An animistic interpretation of the feedback radically changes our view by revealing how mind at the planetary level emerges through many kinds of signals at each step of the process. The hugely complex biological signalling that takes place between living beings that weather silicate rocks changes the nature of the simpler signals (involving chemical bonding) amongst the chemical elements in the rock such that it dissolves, thereby removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The resulting reductions in temperature and rainfall eventually feed back to influence the rock weathering beings, whose exquisitely sensitive interpretations of these signals cause them to reduce their rock weathering, allowing carbon dioxide to build up in the atmosphere from volcanoes. In the mechanistic view we are detached observers, whereas in the animistic view there is a greater feeling of participation in the wider mind of the Earth.
So far we have used mostly thinking to elucidate some key features of an animistic science of the Earth, but such a science cannot be complete without contributions from our sensing, intuition and feeling. As animistic scientists, we bring the four functions together through sensory experience, visualisation and contemplation. We go into the woods and immerse ourselves experientially in the semiotic communicative web of our animate Earth. We realise that everything is language – the call of the birds as much as the sounds and sights of the wind in the trees (Abram 1997, 2010). Then, sitting on a boulder perhaps, we use Goethe’s approach to turn inwards, using our scientific knowledge to carefully build up a step by step visualisation – like that of a plant growing from a seed – of Gaia’s long evolutionary journey. We see the planet coalescing from a disc of gas some four and half thousand million years ago, we see her crust solidifying and see her global ocean, some three and half thousand million years ago suddenly populated by green photosynthesising bacteria. We see the first continents appearing some two and a half thousand million years ago and witness the birth of the long-term carbon cycle as the first bacteria on land begin the weathering of silicate rocks. We sense oxygen slowly building up in the atmosphere, and we experience the huge explosion of multicellular life some 600 million years ago that quickened Gaia’s intelligence, making her ever more adroit at regulating her temperature. Then, if we are lucky, we might be granted a powerful intuitive experience of being Gaia’ed – of the palpable sacred reality of the huge, round sentient personhood (beyond concepts – beyond description) of our breathing, turning world in whom we deeply and joyfully participate. Once again we witness the return of hermeticists’ animating spirits of the world in a manner consistent with modern science relevant for our times. With this comes a spontaneous ethical feeling of wanting to act to benefit all beings who inhabit the Earth – from rocks to humans – an ethics in which we feel that all beings have intrinsic value simply because they exist (Naess 1990). We have come home to Gaia, and now, with this inspiration, we can get down to the work of finding our peaceful and rightful place within her turning lustrous body.
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