In my recent post Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster I discussed Eric H. Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and in that discussion I characterized the Late Bronze Age (LBA) simultaneous collapse of many civilized societies as a “mass extinction” of civilizations. In the exposition of my argument I first formulated the following idea:

“…civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.”

This idea, as I now see, can be understood on its own as a distinctive process of complex adaptive systems, applicable not only to civilizations, but also to a range of emergent complexities like life, consciousness, and intelligence as well.

Now I’d like to apply this idea to life, and life under the special circumstances (not presently obtaining within our own planetary system, though that may have been the case in the past) of a multi-planet ecosystem. What, then, is a multi-planet ecosystem?

When the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system was discovered, with seven smallish, rocky planets tightly orbiting a small star, the possibilities for life here were of immediate interest to astrobiologists. It has long been thought that lithopanspermia (the transfer of life between planets on rocks) may have occurred within our solar system between Venus, Earth, and Mars — all smallish, rocky planets relatively close in to the sun, and which are known to have have exchanged ejecta from collisions. With an even greater number of small rocky planets in even closer proximity, the likelihood of lithopanspermia at TRAPPIST-1 (assuming life is present in some form) would seem to be higher than in our solar system.

I already know of two papers on the possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system, Enhanced interplanetary panspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system by Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, and Fast litho-panspermia in the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 system, by Sebastiaan Krijt, Timothy J. Bowling, Richard J. Lyons, and Fred J. Ciesla. There is also a paper about the possibilities for botany in the system, Comparative Climates of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system: results from a simple climate-vegetation model by Tommaso Alberti, Vincenzo Carbone, Fabio Lepreti, and Antonio Vecchio.

In a couple of Tumblr posts, More is Different and Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I discussed some of these possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (And the same interesting TRAPPIST-1 system was also discussed on The Unseen Podcast Episode 69 — A Taste of TRAPPIST-1.)

In More is Different I wrote…

“It may well prove that more is different when it comes to planets, their biospheres, and ecosystems spanning multiple planets. Multi-planet ecologies (we can’t call them biospheres, because they would be constituted by multiple biospheres) may produce qualitatively distinct emergents based on the greater number of components of the ecosystem so constituted. Emergent complexities not possible in a planetary system like our own, with a single liquid-water world, may be possible where there are multiple such planets ecologically coupled through lithopanspermia, and perhaps through other vectors that we cannot now imagine.”

…and in Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote…

“If life arose separately on several closely spaced planets, with slight biochemical differences between the distinct origin of life events on the several planets, and circumstances within that planetary system were conducive to lithopanspermia, this would mean that each of the planets would eventually have tinctures of life from the other planets, and if these varieties of life could live together without destroying each other, the mixed biospheres of multi-planetary habitable zones where there has been independent origins of life on multiple worlds would suggest a diversity of life not realized on Earth.”

If we combine the ideas of a multi-planetary ecosystem with the idea of reticulate distributed development (which I introduced in relation to civilizational development), we can immediately see the possibility of a multi-planetary ecosystem in which life remains in nearly continuous interaction across several different planets. In such a complex astrobiological context, the great macroevolutionary transitions would not necessarily need to occur all within a single biosphere. It would be sufficient that the macroevolutionary transition took place on at least one planet of the multi-planetary ecosystem, and was subsequently distributed to the other planets of the ecosystem by lithopanspermia. The result would be a seriation of distributed development, i.e., a series of developments taking place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating on a single planet, in a single biosphere. Is this even possible?

We know that microbial life is remarkably resilient, and could likely make the lithopanspermatic journey from one planet to another, but could anything more complex than microbial life make this journey? Recently Caleb A. Scharf in Complex Life: Wimpy or Tough? Complex life may be less resilient than microbial life by some measures, but it’s not necessarily cosmically delicate questions the received wisdom of assuming that eukaryotic multi-cellular life is too vulnerable and delicate to survive “hurdles of selection” — and certainly panspermia must be among the most vertiginous of such hurdles. What about, for example, if conditions were right to freeze complex cells into a still-liquid chamber within a rock, deep in a protected crevice, which then could travel to another planet with complex life intact? There must be similar vectors for panspermia of which we are unaware simply because our imagination fails us.

Obviously, such an occurrence would require many circumstances to occur in just the right order and in just the right way. When this happens for us, as human beings, we say that things are “just right,” and we invoke anthropic selection effects as an explanation, which in this case is simply a Kantian transcendental argument as applied to human beings. But conditions also might be “just right” for some other kind of life, and the antecedent circumstances for such life would be the transcendental conditions of that life — a selection effect of life as we do not know it. This wouldn’t be an “anthropic” explanation in the narrow sense, but if we formalized the concept of an anthropic explanation so that it applied to any being whatsoever, then what human beings call an anthropic explanation would be a special case among a class of explanations. And in this class of explanations would be the “just right” conditions that might lead to rapid and enhanced lithopanspermia among closely spaced planets, which allowed for the transfer to complex life among these planets.

The idea of panspermia has made us familiar with the possibility of life originating on one world and subsequently developing on another world. In case of enhanced and rapid lithopanspermia in an astrobiological context “just right” for such life, we might find life originating on one planet, achieving photosynthesis on another planet, becoming multi-cellular on a third planet, developing an endoskeleton on yet another planet, and so on, possibly continuing to develop into intelligent life. This is what I mean by a seriation of distributed evolutionary development.

If this is possible, if complex life can pass between planets in a multi-planetary ecosystem, I suspect that the rate of evolutionary change would be at least somewhat accelerated in this reticulate astrobiological context, much as the development of civilization was arguably accelerated in the west Asian cluster as a result of the continual interaction of the several civilizations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean.

And as life goes, so goes civilization predicated upon life. In a multi-planetary ecosystem, a civilization that grew up on one of these worlds would evolve in a unique astrobiological context that would shape its unique development. Darwin said that, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Civilizations, too, bear the lowly stamp of their biological origins. A biocentric civilization emergent within a multi-planetary ecosystem would be distinctively shaped by the selection pressures of this ecosystem, which would not be the same as the selection pressures of a single biosphere. And a technocentric civilization arising from a biocentric civilization would continue to carry the lowly stamp of its origins into the farthest reaches of its development.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ecological niche construction in the natural world.

Ecological niche construction in the natural world.

Recently in The Biological Conception of Civilization I defined civilization as a tightly coupled cohort of coevolving species. In proposing this definition, I openly acknowledged its limitations. This biological conception of civilization defines a biocentric civilization, and if civilization continues in its technological development, it may eventually pass from being a biocentric civilization, dependent upon intelligent organic species originating on planetary surfaces, to being a technocentric civilization, no longer dependent in this sense.

Even given these limitations of the biological conception of civilization, we need not abandon a biological framework entirely to converge upon a yet more comprehensive conception of civilization, beyond the biocentric, but still roughly characterized by conditions that we have learned from our tenure on Earth. Being ourselves an intelligent organic species existing on the surface of a planet, biological modes of thought can be made especially effective for minds such as ours, and it is in our cognitive interest to cultivate a mode of thought for which we are specially adapted.

Let us, then, go a little beyond a strictly biological conception of civilization and formulate an ecological conception of civilization. To make this conception immediately explicit, here is a first formulation…

The Ecological Conception of Civilization:

Civilization is niche construction by an intelligent species.

This formulation of the ecological conception of civilization could be amended to read, “by an intelligent species or by several intelligent species,” in order to anticipate the possibility of intelligence-rich biospheres that give rise to civilizations constituted by multiple intelligent species.

What is niche construction? Here is a sketch of the idea from a book on niche construction:

“…organisms… interact with environments, take energy and resources from environments, make micro- and macrohabitat choices with respect to environments, construct artifacts, emit detritus and die in environments, and by doing all these things, modify at least some of the natural selection pressures present in their own, and in each other’s, local environments.”

Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, Monographs in Population Biology 37, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 1

The authors go on to say:

“All living creatures, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, partly create and partly destroy their own niches, on scales ranging from the extremely local to the global.”


Human interaction with the terrestrial environment is an obvious example of taking energy and resources from the environment on a global scale, altering the selection pressures on our own evolution as a species by both creating and destroying a niche for ourselves. We are not the first terrestrial organisms to act upon the planet globally; when stromatolites (microbial mats composed of cyanobacteria) were the dominant life form on Earth, their photosynthetic processes ultimately produced the Great Oxygenation Event and catastrophically changed the biosphere. Had it not been for that global catastrophic change of the biosphere, oxygen-breathing organisms such as ourselves could not have evolved.

'The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), also called the Oxygen Catastrophe, Oxygen Crisis, Oxygen Holocaust, Oxygen Revolution, or Great Oxidation, was the biologically induced appearance of dioxygen in Earth's atmosphere.'  from Wikipedia (

‘The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), also called the Oxygen Catastrophe, Oxygen Crisis, Oxygen Holocaust, Oxygen Revolution, or Great Oxidation, was the biologically induced appearance of dioxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.’ from Wikipedia (

Though we are not the first terrestrial organism to shape the biosphere entire, we are the first intelligent terrestrial agents to shape the biosphere, and it has been the application of human intelligence to the problem of human survival that has resulted in human beings adapting their activity to every terrestrial biome and so eventually constructing civilization. At the stage of the initial emergence of civilization, the biological and ecological conceptions of civilizations coincide, as niche construction takes the form of engineering a coevolving cohort of species beneficial to the intelligent agent intervening in the biosphere. In later stages in the development of civilization, the ecological conception is shown to be more comprehensive than the biological conception of civilization, and subsumes the biological conception of civilization.

Not any cohort of coevolving species constitutes a civilization. Pollinating insects (bees) and flowers are involved in what might be called a tightly-coupled cohort of coevolving species, but we could not call bees and flowers together a civilization. Perhaps on other worlds the distinction between what we call civilization and coevolution in the natural world would not be so evident, and we could not as confidently make the distinction. For us, however, this distinction seems obvious. Why? At least one difference between civilization and naturally occurring coevolution is that the tightly-coupled cohort of coevolving species that we call civilization has been purposefully engineered for the benefit of the intelligent species that has demonstrated its agency through this engineering of a niche for itself. Moreover, the engineered niche is entirely dependent upon ongoing intervention to maintain this engineered niche. In the absence of civilization, the tightly-coupled cohort(s) of coveolving species would unravel, while naturally occurring instances of coevolution would continue unchanged, i.e., they would continue to coevolve. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to compare this observation to Schrödinger’s definition of life in thermodynamic terms.)

The necessary role of an intelligent agent in maintaining a coevolutionary cohort of species points beyond the biological conception of civilization to the ecological conception of civilization, which in term points beyond civilizations constructed by biological agents to the possibility of niches constructed by any intelligent agent whatsoever. This makes the ecological conception of civilization more comprehensive than the biological conception of civilization, as the intelligent agents involved in niche construction need not be biological beings. However, biological beings are likely to be the intelligent agents with which civilization begins.

In the kind of universe we inhabit, during the Stelliferous Era biology represents the first possible emergence of intelligent agency, hence the first possibility of intelligent niche construction. (I could hedge a bit on this and instead assert that biological agents are the first likely emergence of intelligent agents, as Abraham Loeb has posited the possibility of life in the very early universe — cf. “The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe” — but I consider this scenario to be unlikely, and the possibility of such life yielding civilization even less likely.) This biocentric possibility of intelligent niche construction can later be supplemented or replaced by later forms of emergent complexity consistent with intelligent agency and capable of niche construction (which latter could involve either building on existing forms of intelligent niche construction or innovating new forms of intelligent niche construction transcending what we today understand as civilization).

The biological conception of civilization — an engineered coevolving cohort of species — constitutes one possible form of niche construction. That is to say, in managing an ecosystem so that it produces a disproportionate number of the plants and animals consumed as food or other products for the use of the directing intelligent agent (human beings in our case), human beings have attained the first possible stage of intelligent niche construction, which is essentially a delineation of biocentric civilization, but the ecological conception of civilization can be adapted to the understanding of non-biocentric civilizations, as, for example, in the case the technocentric civilizations. The various kinds of civilization that we have seen on Earth — including but not limited to agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization — represent distinct forms of intelligent niche construction, and therefore all fall within the ecological conception of civilization. Civilizations constructed by post-biological agents in the form of technological beings may build upon these constructed niches or construct niches more distinctly adapted to post-biological agents (which may be technological agents).

The ecological conception of civilization lends itself to technocentric extrapolation in so far as the ecological recognition of the biology of planetary endemism being dependent on solar flux is readily adapted to conceptions of civilization that have emerged from the work of Dyson and Kardashev. Dyson famously imagined stars so surrounded by the productions of a technological civilization that only the waste heat of these civilizations would be visible to us in the infrared spectrum, and Kardashev equally famously translated this idea into a formalism representing civilization types in terms of total energy resources commanded by a civilization. Even these distant extrapolations of the possibility of our technological civilization are still recognizably dependent upon stellar flux, no less than the biomass of our terrestrial environment is dependent upon solar flux, as stellar flux represents the primary source of readily available energy during the Stelliferous Era. In this way, even technocentric civilizations constructed by post-biological intelligent agents are continuous with the civilizations of planetary endemism emerging from the biology of planetary surfaces, and both are describable in ecological terms.

ecological relationships

It could be said that the ecological conception of civilization presupposes the biological conception, because ecological systems supervene on biological systems (or, at least, ecological systems have supervened upon biological systems to date, but this is not a necessary relationship and may be superseded in the fullness of time), and an ecological perspective provides a conceptual framework placing civilization in the context of the natural world from which it emerged and upon which it depends, as well as placing any given civilization in the context of other civilizations. This latter function — providing a systematic framework for the interaction of civilizations — ultimately may be the most valuable aspect of the ecological conception of civilization, but one that can only be suggested at present. The ecological relationships familiar to us from the study of living organisms — mutualism (or symbiosis), commensalism, predation, and parasitism — may hold for civilizations also, but this kind of parallelism cannot be assumed. The ecological relationships among civilizations — i.e., among intelligent species that have engaged in niche construction — may well be more complex than the ecological relationships among organisms, but this is a matter for further study that I will not attempt to elaborate at present.

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Niche construction by intelligent agents.

Niche construction by intelligent agents.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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'Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. At 2,263 miles in diameter, it is slightly larger than Earth’s moon.' (NASA)

“Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. At 2,263 miles in diameter, it is slightly larger than Earth’s moon.” (NASA)

In earlier posts of this series on Civilizations of Planetary Endemism we saw that planets not only constitute a “Goldilocks” zone for liquid water, but also for energy flows consistent with life as we know it. I would like to go into this in a little more detail, as there is much to be said on this. It is entirely possible that energy flows on a planet or moon outside the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) could produce sufficient heat to allow for the presence of liquid water in the outer reaches of a planetary system. Indeed, it may be misleading to think of habitable zones (for life as we know it) primarily in terms of the availability of liquid water; it might be preferable to conceive a habitable zone primarily in terms of regions of optimal energy flow (i.e., optimal for life as we know it), and to understand the availability of liquid water as a consequence of optimal energy flow.

Our conception of habitability, despite what we already know, and what we can derive from plausible projections of scientific knowledge, is being boxed in by the common conceptions (and misconceptions) of biospheres and CHZs. We can posit the possibility of “oasis” civilizations on worlds where only a limited portion of the surface is inhabitable and no “biosphere” develops, although enough of a fragment of a biosphere develops in order for complex life, intelligence, and civilization to emerge. We do not yet have an accurate term for the living envelope that can emerge on a planetary surface, but which does not necessary cover the entire planetary surface. I have experimented with a variety of terms to describe this previously. For example, I used “biospace” in my 2011 presentation “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” but this is still dissatisfying.

As is so often the case, we run into problems when we attempt to extrapolate Earth sciences formulated for the explicit purpose of accounting for contingent terrestrial facts, and never conceived as a purely general scientific exercise applicable to any comparable phenomena anywhere in the universe. This is especially true of ecology, and since I find myself employing ecological concepts so frequently, I often feel the want of such formulations. Ecology as a science is theoretically weak (it is much stronger on its observational side, which goes back to traditional nature studies that predate ecology), and its chaos of criss-crossing classification systems reflects this.

There are a great many terms for subdivisions of the biosphere — ecozone, bioregion, ecoregion, life zone, biome, ecotope — which are sometimes organized serially from more comprehensive to less comprehensive. None of these subdivisions of a biosphere, however, would accurately describe the inhabited portion of a world on which biology does not culminate in a biosphere. Perhaps we will require recourse to the language and concepts of topology, since a biosphere, as a sphere, is simply connected. The bioring of a tidally locked M dwarf planet would not be simply connected in this topological sense.

If we conceptualize habitable zones not in terms of a celestial body being the right temperature to have liquid water on its surface, or perhaps in a subsurface ocean, but rather view this availability of liquid water as a consequence of habitable zones defined in terms of the presence of energy flows consistent with life as we know it, then we will need to investigate alternative sources of energy flow, i.e., distinct from the patterns of energy flow that we understand from our homeworld. Energy flows consistent with life as we know it are consistent with conditions that allow for the presence of liquid water on a celestial body, but this also means energy flows that would not overwhelm biochemistry and energy flows that are not insufficient for biochemistry and the origins and maintenance of metabolism.

Energy flows might be derived from stellar output (thus a consequence of gravitational confinement fusion), from radioactivity, which could take the form of radioactive decay or even a naturally-occurring nuclear reactor, as as Oklo in Gabon (thus a consequence of fission), from gravitational tidal forces, or from the kinetic energy of impacts. All of these sources of energy flows have been considered in another connection: suggested ways to resolve the faint young sun paradox (the problem that the sun was significantly dimmer earlier in its life cycle, while there still seems to have been liquid water on Earth) are the contributions of other energy sources to maintaining a temperature on Earth similar to that of today, including greater tidal heating from a closer moon, more heating from radioactive decay, and naturally occurring nuclear fission.

It would be possible in a series of thought experiments to consider counterfactual worlds in which each of these sources of energy flow are the primary source of energy for a biosphere (or a subspherical biological region of a planetary surface). The Jovian moon Io, for example, is the most volcanically active body in our solar system; while Io seems to barren, one could imagine an Io of more clement conditions for biology in which the tidal heating of a moon with an atmosphere was the basis of the energy flow for an ecosystem. A world with more fissionables in its crust than Earth (the kind of worlds likely to be found during the late Stelliferous Era under conditions of high metallicity) might be heated by radioactive decay or natural fission reactors (or some combination of the two) sufficient to generate energy flows for a biosphere, even at a great distance from its parent star. It seems unlikely that kinetic impacts from collisions could provide a sufficiently consistent flow of energy without a biosphere suffering mass extinctions from the same impacts, but this could merely be a failure of imagination. Perhaps a steady rain of smaller impacts without major impacts could contribute to energy flows without passing over the threshold of triggering an extinction event.

Each of these exotic counterfactual biospheres suggests the possibility of a living world very different from our own. The source of an energy flow might be inconsistent, that is to say, consistent up to the point of making life possible, but not sufficiently consistent for civilization, or the development of civilization. That is to say, it is possible that a planetary biosphere or subspheric biological region might possess sufficient energy flows for the emergence of life, but insufficient energy flows (or excessive energy flows) for the emergence of complex life or civilization. Once can easily imagine this being the case with extremophile life. And it is possible that a bioregion might possess sufficient energy flows for the emergence of a rudimentary civilization, but insufficient for the development of industrial-technological civilization that can make the transition to spacefaring civilization and thus ensure its longevity.

Civlizations of planetary endemism on these exotic worlds would be radically different from our own civilization due to differences in the structure and distribution of energy flow. Civilizations of planetary endemism are continuous with the biosphere upon which they supervene, so that a distinct biosphere supervening upon a distinct energy flow would produce a distinct civilization. Ultimately and ideally, these distinct forms of energy flow could be given an exhaustive taxonomy, which would, at the same time, be a taxonomy of civilizations supervening upon these energy flows.

However, the supervenience of civilization upon biosheres and biospheres upon energy flows is not exhaustive. Civilizations consciously harness energy flows to the benefit of the intelligent agent engaged in the civilizing process. The first stage of terrestrial civilization, that of agricuturalism and pastoralism, was a natural extension of energy flows already present in the bioshere, but once the breakthrough to industrialization occurred, energy sources became more distant from terrestrial energy flows. Fossil fuels are, in a sense, stored solar energy, and derive from the past biology of our planet, but this is the use of biological resources at one or more remove. As technologies became more sophisticated, in became possible to harness energy sources of a more elemental nature that were not contingent upon extant energy flows on a planet.

It may be, then, that biocentric civilizations are rightly said to supervene upon biospheres. However, with the breakthrough to industrialization, and the beginning of the transition to a technocentric civilization, this supervenience begins to fail and a discontinuity is interpolated between a civilization and its homeworld. According to this account, the transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization is the end point of civilizations of planetary endemism, and the emergence of a spacefaring civilization as the consequence of technologies enabled by technocentric civilization is a mere contingent epiphenomenon of a deeper civilizational process. This in itself provides a deeper and more fundamental perspective on civilization.

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Planetary Endemism

● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part I

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part II

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part III

● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part IV

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Case Studies in Civilization:

AngkorThom Bayon

Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome

Contemporary global distribution of the tropical rainforest biome

Contemporary global distribution of the tropical rainforest biome

In an earlier post, Riparian Civilizations, I outlined some of the commonalities of civilizations that had their origins in fertile river valleys — most notably the civilizations of Mesopotamia, i.e., the Fertile Crescent bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the civilization of ancient Egypt, based on the annual flooding of the Nile, the Yellow River Valley civilization (the source of Chinese civilization), and the Indus Valley civilization (the source of civilization in the Indian subcontinent).

The Nile River Valley made Egyptian civilization possible, sheltered it, and also isolated it.

The Nile River Valley made Egyptian civilization possible, sheltered it, and also isolated it.

While these early civilizations occurred within the equatorial belt, i.e., in the tropics, they were not in tropical rain forests. The biome of a river valley can vary according to rainfall and temperature, even within the tropics. The Congo basin is dominated by tropical rain forests, while the Nile Valley is a canyon that cuts through a desert biome, and so shares properties of the desert and of the river. Mesopotamia has (or had) extensive wetlands fed by its rivers, which became the domain of the Marsh Arabs, who adopted a unique way of life specially suited to this environment. But, again, this was not a tropical rain forest, though Mesopotamia lies in the tropics.

The Iberian civilization of Portugal was transplanted to the tropics of Brazil, and eventually acclimated to the region, but not without descent with modification.

The Iberian civilization of Portugal was transplanted to the tropics of Brazil, and eventually acclimated to the region, but not without descent with modification.

In additional to spatial distinctions among biomes, i.e., recognizing biomes confined to a given geographical region, temporal distinctions must also be made, both because of changing biomes over time due to climatological shifts, and changing human abilities to inhabit and settle a given biome, largely a function of increasing technology. Thus a distinction can be made between civilizations that originate within a given biome and civilizations that acclimate to a given biome. The colonial civilizations that came to Brazil in the early modern period, and to the Congo and SE Asia in the nineteenth century, were transplanted civilizations that adapted to and acclimated to a tropical rainforest biome, and can legitimately be called rainforest civilizations, but none of these civilizations originated in a tropical rainforest biome.

From Frederick Catherwood's Views of Ancient Monuments, 1844, a temple at Tulum, in present-day Mexico.

From Frederick Catherwood’s Views of Ancient Monuments, 1844, a temple at Tulum, in present-day Mexico.

We are fortunate to have the terrestrial example of two civilizations of completely independent origins, both of the tropical rainforest biome, though in opposite hemispheres: Mayan civilization in the western hemisphere and Khmer civilization in the eastern hemisphere. In the best tradition of settled agricultural civilizations, both the Mayans and the Khmer left monumental architecture. Indeed, the pyramids of Central America and the temples of Angkor Wat, made picturesque by their reclamation by the tropical rain forest that was the incubator of these civilizations, overgrown by vines and their foundations tumbled by the roots of gigantic trees, have become iconic tourist draws in their respective regions of the world. The riches of past civilizations have now been passed down as a kind of legacy to the present peoples, mostly ethnically continuous with the peoples who built these civilizations, whose descendants now derive a modest income from tourist traffic.

Angkor Wat from Voyage d'exploration en Indo-Chine by Francis Garnier, with illustrations by Louis Delaporte (1873).

Angkor Wat from Voyage d’exploration en Indo-Chine by Francis Garnier, with illustrations by Louis Delaporte (1873).

We do not yet possess a complete seriation of civilization in the western hemisphere. We know that maize cultivation began in the Rio Balsas valley in what is now southern Mexico, a semi-arid tropical biome (and the native range of the teosinte grasses that were transformed by ancient agriculturalists into maize), and so may be assimilated to the paradigm of riparian civilizations. Mayan civilization, however, was concentrated in the rain forests of Central America. How exactly Mayan civilization was related to its northern neighbor, thousands of years its senior, is not yet fully understood.

Early forms of maize, derived from the teosinte grasses of the Rio Balsas Valley in southern Mexican, a region contiguous with the tropical rain forests of Central America.

Early forms of maize, derived from the teosinte grasses of the Rio Balsas Valley in southern Mexican, a region contiguous with the tropical rain forests of Central America.

Genetic sequencing of maize is a source of recent knowledge about the origins of maize, hence of origins of settled agriculturalism in the western hemisphere, but this work is ongoing at present. Moreover, while maize was an important crop for the Maya, and the Mayan corn god plays an important role in Mayan mythology, it was not the sole staple of the Maya. Maize was one of the “Three Sisters”, along with squash and beans, which together constituted a nutritionally balanced diet, and the cultivation of these crops together was ecologically sustainable due to complementary biochemical interaction with the soil.

Angkor Thom

We also lack a complete seriation of civilization in Asia, of which a seriation of civilization in Indochina would be an appendage. Khmer civilization rose from a pre-existing context of minor kingdoms in Indochina, and seems to draw upon both Indian and Chinese civilizational origins (though primarily Indian and Hindu), though it should be noted that recent archaeological work in the Malay archipelago suggest that civilization may have independently originated on the island of Java as well (depending upon the antiquity of Gunung Padang), in which case Khmer civilization would constitute a florid syncretism of Indian, Chinese, and Javanese cultural antecedents. Indeed, this is true whether or not civilization independently arose in Java, as the Khmer civilization is many thousands of years younger than these other examples.

Rice was the basis of the agricultural economy of Indochina.

Rice was the basis of the agricultural economy of Indochina.

The biome in which a civilization arises not only dictates the species available for harvesting and domestication, but also shapes the way in which peoples harvest energy from their environments. Agriculture is one way in which human beings harvest energy from their environments, and different forms of agriculture emerge in distinct biomes. The tropical rainforest biome offers enormous biodiveristy, but in tropical civilization we still find the same reliance on a handful of staple crops, as we find in civilizations originating in other biomes. Civilization is, in a certain narrow sense (a narrow sense compatible with the biological definition of civilization mentioned below), a voluntary truncation of biodiversity. Hunter-gatherers almost always have a much more varied diet that settled agricultural peoples, who are usually dependent on less than a dozen staple food crops.

Perhaps even less is known of the origins of rice than of the origins of maize.

Perhaps even less is known of the origins of rice than of the origins of maize.

The biological definition of civilization as a coevolving cohort of species (cf. section 6 of my Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation and The Biological Conception of Civilization) not only gives us a new tool with which to analyze civilization, but also a suggestive way to compare civilizations. The comparison of civilizations from similar biomes and the contrast of civilizations from distinct biomes is one of these tools. With this method we approach the equivalent of symmetry for the social sciences. Thus we have something to learn from the various ways that riparian civilizations have come to exploit the resources of river systems, and presumably we will have something to learn from the ways that civilizations of the tropical rain forest biome have exploited the high biodiversity of climax communities of tropical rain forests.


Since there is no winter in a tropical rainforest, in Mesoamerica it is possible to raise three crops of maize in a year, and in Indochina it is possible to raise three or four crops of rice in a year. Tropical rainforests thus offer to a civilization the unique opportunity to support the high population densities of cities and ceremonial centers via continuous, year-round food production. However, none of this can happen without water storage and irrigation. Both Mayan and Khmer civilizations might be characterized as hydrological civilizations, since they were predicated upon the careful management of water for irrigation, and both constructed major engineering works (perhaps not as visually impressive as their monumental architecture, but much more interesting from a scientific point of view) to store and to distribute water. The rainforest of Indochina, it should be noted, is a monsoon rainforest, with about six months of rain and six months of drought, so that in order to keep up food production through the months of drought, significant irrigation is necessary, which the Khmer achieved through use of the waters of the Siem Reap river.

Mayan mural from Bonampak.

Mayan mural from Bonampak.

Compared to civilizations originating in river valleys, civilizations originating in tropical rain forests are comparatively rare. I have here discussed the two most obvious examples. It is interesting also that both of these civilizations, while they came to full maturity and endured for significant periods of time — many centuries, such as is necessary for a civilization to reach full maturity — both civilizations seem to have collapsed internally, and not due to contacts with other civilizations. There are, of course, many theories about the collapse of Maya civilization; this has become a perennial archaeological riddle. Current theories favor drought or climate change. I am less familiar with the causes of Khmer decline. But whatever the cause of the decline of the Maya and the Khmer, they were not, for the most part, conquered and subdued. Their cities and temples were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, not burned and thrown down.

khmer ruins

There are still Mayan people speaking the Mayan language in Mesoamerica, and Khmer people in Indochina; the collapse of these civilizations must have led to at least a partial dispersal of the populations from the great urban centers, which remain in ruins, but whatever catastrophes (or slow decline, if that was the case) befell these civilizations, the people who built them are still to be found in the region. The civilizations became extinct, but the populations did not. The difficulty of building a civilization in a tropical rain forest biome constitutes a significant challenge, and this climatological and biological challenge to civilization may be the reason, or one reason among many, that so few civilizations originated in the tropical rain forest, and, of these two here examined, both came to a natural end.

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civilization 1

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Case Studies in Civilization

1. The Seriation of Western Civilization

2. Riparian Civilizations

3. Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome

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civilization 2

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Discord Invitation

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Geopolitics and Geostrategy

as a formal sciences

In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.

There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.

Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:

One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)

Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.

There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.

The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.

We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.

The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.

Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).

Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:

“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.

Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)

A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).

As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.

Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.

Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.

Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.

If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.

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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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There is an ancient parable from India about several blind men who encounter an elephant. The story is well known in many different versions, in all of which the blind men disagree as the nature of the animal — one touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree; another touches its ear and says that an elephant is like a fan; another touches its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake, and so forth.

We know that the elephant is one and whole, but the blind men of the parable do not know the elephant as a single reality; they are blind in more than one sense.

The same problem — the problem of appearance and reality — has been central to Western metaphysics since the beginning of philosophy to the present day. I have previously written about the philosophical antipathy and rivalry between Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell in the early part of the twentieth century (in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time). Both of these antagonistic figures treated the same problem. Here is Bergson’s version:

There is in this something very like what an artist passing through Paris does when he makes, for example, a sketch of a tower of Notre Dame. The tower is inseparably united to the building, which is itself no less inseparably united to the ground, to its surroundings, to the whole of Paris, and so on. It is first necessary to detach it from all these; only one aspect of the whole is noted, that formed by the tower of Notre Dame. Moreover, the special form of this tower is due to the grouping of the stones of which it is composed; but the artist does not concern himself with these stones, he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organization of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation.

Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris.” And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together. But there is no way of performing the inverse operation; it is impossible, even with an infinite number of accurate sketches, and even with the word “Paris” which indicates that they must be combined together, to get back to an intuition that one has never bad, and to give oneself an impression of what Paris is like if one has never seen it.

Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics

And here is Russell’s version (which I previously quoted in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology):

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

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Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1

Bergson later goes on to add, after his exposition of the problem:

“Both empiricists and rationalists are victims of the same fallacy. Both of them mistake partial notations for real parts, thus confusing the point of view of analysis and of intuition, of science and of metaphysics.”

It is almost as though Bergson realized that his own “empiricism” (after a fashion) might be contrasted with Russell’s “rationalism.” This is where the problem of appearance and reality meets the problem of the one and the many. Reality is one; appearance is many. How are we to understand how the one presents itself as many, and how the many are unified in the one?

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

There are times when the many perspectives on one and the same world seem unproblematic. The case of the blind men and the elephant can be resolved by bringing the blind men back to the elephant and directing them to feel the continuity of the various parts of the elephant with each other. And when many different scientific experiments confirm one and the same theory by testing different aspects of that theory in different ways, but all independently (and reproducibly) confirm one and the same theory, we know that we have one scientific theory that despite its many predictions concerns itself with one and the same world.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

There are other times when the unity of the world and of the diverse perspectives upon the world are more problematic. Everyone, I think, is well familiar with the problems posed by competing and incommensurable narratives of what is believed to be the same sequence of events. This difficulty is encapsulated in the pop-culture dichotomy of, “he said/she said,” where the incommensurability is the incommensurability of gendered perspective.

Thomas Nagel's famous paper, 'What is it like to be a bat?' considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

I have elsewhere cited Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (in Addendum on the Origins of Time and What is it like to be a serpent?) and noted that Nagel chose the example of a bat because, as a vertebrate and a mammal it is not all that different from primates (and presumably has experiences of the world not unlike those that primates have of the world), but the bat primarily experiences the world through sonar rather than through sight. That makes the bat very different from a primate, and presumably results in a dramatically different experience of the world — hence, there is something that it is like to be a bat, and this “something” is significantly different from what it is like to be a primate.

There are many ways of seeing the world, and some of these ways do not even involve “seeing.”

There is a sense in which organisms that relate to the world through fundamentally different sensory mechanisms experience a different world. The bat’s world constructed from sonar, the pit viper’s world constructed from infrared-sensing pits, the shark’s world constructed from electroreceptors, and the primate’s world of stereoscopic color vision are, in a sense, different “worlds.” But only “in a sense,” because in another sense these diverse senses reveal the same world, as is apparent when these different organisms with their distinct sensory mechanisms interact — sometimes recognizing each other (which I attempted to describe in The Eye of the Other), sometimes just avoiding each other, while at other times preying on each other or fleeing from predation.

Biodiversity means perceptual and epistemic diversity.

If we can find a way to put these different perceptions of the world together, we will have a much more comprehensive account of the world that that based on the observations of a single species. That is to say, the perspectives of other species, if only we could tap into them, would provide countervailing evidence to lessen our anthropic bias. We can think of these other perspectives as narratives, with each narrative of the world being ontologically derived from the structure of the organism, which involves both the peculiarities of its sensory organs and its functional relationship to its environment.

If we take a naturalistic perspective and assume that the natural world is, unproblematically, as it presents itself to be, with a variety of many distinct species involved in relationships of cooperation and competition, we know that these radically distinct perspectives on the single natural world that hosts us all are in fact fully commensurable. Although no one individual, and no one species, has the synoptic perspective that includes all radically distinct forms of sensory perception, the distinct perspectives have a unity in the unity of nature. (And indeed also a unity of mind, such as I elaborated in Kantian Critters.)

Naturalism, then, implies the commensurability of radically distinct world-narratives that are ecologically integrated even if we cannot understand this integration or experience the world from any perspective other than that common to our species.

That the perspectives of distinct species possess a de facto commensurability despite their profound differences puts the supposedly incommensurable theoretical views of human beings into perspective. It is, of course, the position of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that different theoretical models of the world constitute distinct paradigms, and that these paradigms are incommensurable.

The “theories” implicit in the sensory apparatus of any two distinct species are far greater than the difference between any two theories maintained by the same species, though we must entertain the possibility that our ideas give us a dimension of differentiation that does not exist for all species, just as not all species possess sensory organs (as, for example, with micro-organisms), so that the possession of sensory organs also involves a dimension of differentiation from species lacking sensory organs.

The primate brain devotes much of its capacity to the heavy processing demands of stereoscopic color vision. The mollusk brain also processes fairly sophisticated visual stimuli, but it also devotes a significant amount of its capacity to the control of the cells on the surface of its skin, which allows octopi and cuttlefish to produce both brilliant displays and effective camouflage on demand. Given brains structured around these very different cognitive demands, I imagine that primates think and view the world very differently from the way that mollusks think and view the world — though these differences do not prevent the species from interacting, though primates and mollusks don’t interact all that much because of their distinct ecological niches.

If species possessing a cognitive architecture as profoundly different as that represented by primates and mollusks can achieve a de facto commensurability through their common participation in a single biosphere, then the incommensurability of different human points of view does not seem all that bleak.

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies that sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Biohistory and Biopolitics

25 February 2012


About a week ago I was browsing in a used book store and had the good fortune to come across a book that I’d never heard of, but just the title told me that it was something that would immediately appeal to my particular perspective on history. The book, which I purchased, is Western Civilization in Biological Perspective: Patterns in Biohistory by Stephen Boyden.

Professor Stephen Boyden

The author, I learned upon investigation, has had a long and varied career — exactly the sort of thing that would give a person the kind of broad perspective that would be needed to write the history from western civilization from a biological perspective.

Recently, in a series of posts — Geopolitics and Biopolitics, Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and A Further Note on Geopolitics and Biopolitics — I took the idea of “biopolitics” and “biopower” from Foucault and developed it as a possible alternative to geopolitics as a form of strategic analysis.

There is nothing of Foucault in Boyden’s book. Foucault’s name does not appear in the index, and a search of the text reveals no reference to Foucault. More importantly, the nature of the text itself is utterly divorced from Foucault and from continental philosophy generally speaking — it seems to employ no terminology or concepts in common with the continental tradition, and treats of none of the familiar preoccupations of this tradition (Marx and Freud are mentioned in passing in a couple of places, but are in no sense a focus of the text; they do not even influence the terms of the discussion).

Although Boyden’s treatment of biohistory has virtually nothing to do with Foucault, I can’t imagine a more perfect theoretical foundation for biopolitics than a scholarly treatment of biohistory as found in Boyden. Boyden brings the kind of Anglo-American objectivity (though he is an Aussie) to biohistory that could greatly sharpen and improve the formulations of biopolitics, which latter are vulnerable to the enthusiasms of continental philosophy. Foucault himself insisted upon the “grayness” of genealogy, and the patient analysis of Boyden constitutes a de facto genealogy of biopower, which is something Foucault said that he had to write, but which he did not get to before he died.

A biohistory of civilization would be, in effect, an ecology of civilization, and Boyden employs ecological concepts throughout his study. One way to bring further analytical clarity to an ecology of civilization would be the systematic use of ecological temporality in the exposition of biohistory. This is something that I will think about.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Origins of Time

30 November 2011


The Construction of Ecological Temporality

The geologic time spiral — A path to the past

A Genetic Account of the Origins of the World

The ontogeny of time

The emergence and development of temporal consciousness — that is to say, the origins of individual time, the ontogeny of time — begins in the individual, but the early experience of the individual is that of an individual embedded in a temporal context. The individual’s internal time consciousness is constructed in a temporal context that I will call the reflexive experience of time.

Children — at least those children allowed a childhood, which is not always the case — live most in the world of meso-temporality, mostly because they have not yet learned not to trust, and so they feel free to express the spontaneity of their inner time consciousness as though by reflex. Reflexive experience of time, in which there are few if any barriers between the micro-temporality of the individual and the meso-temporality of the immediate social context of the individual, embodies an absolute innocence.

In a condition of innocence, everything that occurs is new, so that time is densely populated with unprecedented events. Every hour and every day brings novelty. As we age, every hour and every day brings more of the same — the same old same old, as we say today — and so it is little surprise that we don’t notice the passing of this undifferentiated sameness. For the young, time flies by unnoticed, and because the passage of time is unnoticed it has the quality of timelessness.

As we age, time flies by all the faster.

Later, in our maturity, we have the ability to appreciate episodes of innocence that we could not have appreciated in our younger years — thus following the well-worn idea that youth is wasted upon the young — there is another sense in which youthful experience makes the fullest use of time and yields a density of experience that we cannot experience in later life.

G. B. Shaw was the one who first said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

The time consciousness of youth, driven by the stream of novelty that is the result of innocence, sharpens and enlarges the smallest events, and thus we see young children sobbing over a ice cream cone that has dropped to the ground, which leaves us, as adults, largely unmoved. We shrug our shoulders and move on. Would that we could experience life with such intensity that an ice cream cone were worth a flood of tears.

There is a sense in which it is counter-intuitive to speak of the intensity of experience of children, since the halcyon days of youth are usually not thought to consist of intensity but rather of carefree indolence, but in the sense outlined above, the innocent lead lives of greater intensity than the jaded.

Innocence wrings every last drop from the passing of time, so that in a condition of innocence there is no moment that is wasted. In maturity, the greater part of time is wasted, until, as Shakespeare noted, having wasted time, time wastes us.

Developmental temporality: the role of play

Developmental psychologists have had much to say about the child’s initial encounters with a recalcitrant world that does not answer to its whims. This initial phase of socialization is also the first loss of innocence, and the first compromise of reflexive temporality. As the consciousness of temporality progresses in the individual, the individual comes to understand that they can cultivate a Cartesian privacy in which fantasies will not be interrupted by the recalcitrant world. Thus reflexive temporality gradually gives way to imaginative temporality, and the spontaneity of the child is displaced from the immediate expression of inner promptings to the inner expression of these promptings by way of imagination. Thus play emerges, and the imaginative temporality of play allows the individual to further develop the inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy.

Erik Erikson's stages of psycho-social development is one well-known developmental theory.

Play, however, also makes possible a re-discover of reflexive temporality when the childred discovers other children and begins to play with them. The shared, social temporality of play, especially when adults are not present to puncture the illusions generated by imaginative time consciousness, can again converge onto a purely reflexive time consciousness when the child feels free to express their spontaneity among peers who share the form of time consciousness common to this stage in the development of childhood.

Pieter Bruegel, detail from Children's Games, 1560, Oil on oak panel, 118 x 161 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna

Play, too, is eventually compromised, as conflicts inevitably emerge from games played with peers, so that the life of the child exhibits a dialectic of shifting between reflexive time consciousness and imaginative time consciousness, which is a shift of the focus of spontaneity from outer life to inner life and back again to outer life. It is the dialectical process that contributes to the further development and reinforcement of an inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy, which becomes a haven for the individual, wounded by encounters with an unsympathetic world.

Games among children often result in conflicts, and these conflicts teach us early in life that the world is usually not responsive to our will.

All throughout the dialectic of early time consciousness, however, the experience of the child is still marked by innocence, and it is the process of the degradation of innocence that brings about a fully mature time consciousness (if, in fact, this does develop, and its development is not arrested by trauma).

The degradation of innocence and the emergence of mature time consciousness

The degradation of innocence comes about from cumulative experience. Cumulative experience can only be experienced as cumulative with the development of memory, so that the emergence of robust memories is central to the emergence of fully mature time consciousness. However, it is the same process of the emergence of memory that degrades innocence. Memory demonstrates to us the non-novelty of our spontaneity, and as the spontaneity of our internal promptings loses its novelty, it also begins to lose its interest.

As we age, and the depth and breadth of our experience grows, preserved in an improving memory, and our opportunities for experiences of innocence decline proportionately until our capacity approaches zero and we no longer expect or even hope to directly experience innocence again. In the lives of many adults it is their relationships with children that yield whatever vicarious experiences of innocence for which they still retain hope, and so they take pleasure in seeing the world anew through the eyes of another, but there is a melancholy to this because one knows in one’s heart of hearts (as subtle as the distinction may seem to be) that there is a difference between immediate and vicarious experiences of innocence.

And yet (and despite), when we are surprised by an authentic experience of innocence later in life, beyond the bounds of youth, we now experience it from a perspective of maturity, and both its rarity and our capacity to appreciate it make the experience all the more precious. When we are young, everything is new to us, and experiences of innocence are common; experience narrows the scope of innocence until any such experience appears as something completely unexpected, but when it does occur we have the maturity to appreciate the experience that we did not possess in youth.

It is the same innocence that is behind the very different time consciousness of youth compared to maturity. Everyone knows that as you age, time seems to pass ever more quickly, until it flies by and the years scarcely make any impression in their passing. This stands in stark contrast to feelings of endless summers from our childhood that seemed to go on forever, as well as anticipating and waiting for holidays that seemed to take forever to arrive.

The time consciousness we associate will full cognitive modernity is a product of cognitive maturity.

Keeping secrets and Cartesian privacy

Another aspect of the child’s encounter with a recalcitrant world not obedient to his or her wishes is the discovery of the power of secrets. The youngest children, immersed as they are in meso-temporality and observing few if any boundaries between internal spontaneity and external expression, cannot keep a secret. Even if they make an experiment of it, and older children try to let them in on a secret, they will usually blurt it out, and as a consequence are considered untrustworthy. …

The shared confidences of older children, however, especially confidences that exclude adults and their alien forms of time consciousness, become an object of envy for the younger child, who wants to become “grown up” in order to share in these confidences. Thus the younger child makes a conscious effort of will to cultivate inhibitions on his or her spontaneity. Older children will continue to test the younger children for the trustworthiness in keeping secrets, at the behest of the pleading of younger children, initially with small secrets and eventually with larger secrets. When these secrets are successfully kept, the child passes the test, and in passing the tests passes another threshold of maturing time consciousness.

The experimenting and testing of secret-keeping trains the child in the development of his or her Cartesian privacy, which becomes a faculty consciously developed by the individual as an exclusively private reserve from which the world entire. The child discovers that not only may adults be excluded, but that other children can also be excluded from this realm of Cartesian privacy. In this perfectly private space of conscious, purely interior micro-temporal consciousness takes root and begins to grow, and as it grows it contributes progessively more to constitution of individual consciousness.

Shared time, social time, and the world as we find it

One of the most mysterious aspects of personal chemistry between individuals, and that which is perhaps the conditio sine qua non of friendship (whether Platonic or romantic), is the simple fact of shared time. Friendship has its origins in childhood play, but its possibilities are deepened by mature time consciousness. We are able to be friends with those with whom the common passage of time is enjoyable. Play is the first expression of joy in shared time. In adolescence, the shared time begins to take on a more intellectual form as shared time becomes primarily shared conversation. In contemporary colloquial English, this is called “hanging out” or simply “hanging.”

I suspect that everyone, or almost everyone, has experienced among their interaction with acquaintances the fact that, with some combinations of individuals, the two or more parties in question mutually enjoy the passage of time together, while among other combinations of individuals, the two or more parties find the common passing of time together to be irritating, unpleasant, or otherwise unfulfilling. The former is a welcome kind of chemistry, while the latter is an unwelcome (but also inevitable) kind of chemistry.

There are also obvious cases of asymmetry, when one party to the shared passage of time finds the experience rewarding, while another party to the same shared temporal frame of reference finds the experience unrewarding or even odious. Here the temporal frame of reference is identical, but the subjective experience of that shared time is sharply distinct. Such are what Shakespeare called the pangs of despised love.

In my post ecological temporality, in which I developed Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model, specifically expanding and extending the ecological treatment of time, I distinguished levels of temporality parallel to Bronfenbrenner’s distinction between levels of bio-ecology. Thus what Husserl called internal time consciousness I called micro-temporality, and the interaction of micro-temporalities begets meso-temporality.

Meso-temporality is social time, and another way to refer to social time would be to call it shared time. An isolated individual experiences the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness, and simply by being present in an environment experiences a rudimentary level of meso-temporality from the necessary interaction of an organism with its environment (the minimal form of rudimentary meso-temporality involves interaction with an inert environment, as, for example, knocking on a door).

Shared time is facilitated by secret-keeping. The young child who cannot yet keep a secret says things openly that impair social relationships. As children learn more above the social environment in which they find themselves, they learn, under penalty of social exclusion, what must be confined to Cartesian privacy, and what may be openly and freely shared. To blurt out socially inappropriate assertions with no concern for boundaries of privacy — both one’s own privacy as well as the privacy of The Other — is to commit a social faux pas and to risk social exclusion. Being envious of social inclusion, children make an effort to train themselves in the boundaries of polite expression, and in so doing they are forced to cultivate a consciousness of the Cartesian privacy of The Other, which is another important threshold on the way to mature time consciousness. The recognize the Cartesian privacy of the other is to recognize the internal time consciousness of The Other. Thus one’s own emerging micro-temporality is placed in the context of the other’s inferred micro-temporality, which together and jointly constitute social time.

The social time or meso-temporality that emerges from a common temporal frame of reference for two or more individuals possessing internal time consciousness is perhaps distinct from that meso-temporality emergent from the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness in the context of an inert, non-conscious environment. Thus meso-temporality may take a variety of forms. Meso-temporality simpliciter may be taken as the interaction of a micro-temporal agent with its environment. When that environment includes other micro-temporal agents and agents join in common action (or common inaction, for that matter), this is social time or share time. Thus social time is a subdivision of meso-temporality.

The minimum condition for social time is two conscious individuals. Two micro-temporalities functioning in a common frame of temporal reference constitutes the first and simplest level of shared time, though shared time can be augmented with the addition of more conscious individuals and can grow until, for spatio-geographical reasons, a common frame of temporal reference is not longer possible. This meso-temporality that exceeds a common frame of temporality is meso-temporality of a higher order of magnitude, and thus constitutes exo-temporality. The interaction of meso-temporalities yields exo-temporality, which is the usually setting for “history” as this is usually understood. Herodotus and Thucydides write on the level of exo-temporality: the interaction and intersection of particular communities over space (a given geographical region) and time (a given period of history).

Returning to the interaction of micro- and meso-temporalities, we can see from the very different responses that individuals have to shared social time that this “functionality” in a shared temporal frame of reference can function in different ways for different individuals. Even when the shared temporal frame of reference is identical, the micro-temporality of consciousness usually remains clearly distinct from the shared time. That is to say, consciousness usually enjoys Cartesian privacy. This is the point of departure of Husserlian internal time consciousness.

The exceptions to Cartesian privacy occur when an individual agent, even having previously cultivated a sense of Cartesian privacy in the childhood dialectic of reflexive time and imaginative time (which perhaps only becomes possible in the context of fully mature historical consciousness), becomes so fully embedded in a meso-temporal frame of reference that they experience no boundaries between themselves and the other agents present. In shared social time one may be so comfortable in the presence of others that one is as spontaneous in interacting with them as one may be spontaneous with one’s own thoughts in private. This constitutes a (temporary) recovery of the reflexive time consciousness of early childhood.

One way to express this is that a particular subdivision of shared social time is when individuals participating in a common meso-temporal frame of reference experience in common what psychologists call “flow states”, such that the individuals in question can no longer distinguish between their internal time consciousness and the meso-temporality of shared time: the barriers of the self come down, and the individual is lost in the shared world. This would be a particularly intimate form of social time, and is possibly the necessary condition of love. Possibly.

The lost paradise of reflexive time

Why do we seek ideal love? We seek ideal love because it is the temporary recovery of the lost paradise of the purely reflexive temporality — unmindful of boundaries, unmindful of a distinction between self and world, unmindful of any barrier to absolute spontaneity and freedom of expression, unmindful of any social constraint risking social exclusion. Love is the reminder of what we have lost in coming to mature time consciousness, even while knowing what we having gained in terms of cultivated micro-temporality, memory linked both to immediate micro-temporality and enduring self-identity, and an awareness of history and our personal place within history.

Moreover, ideal love in the context of mature time consciousness can exceed or surpass the lost paradise of early childhood’s reflexive temporality, because ideal love can accommodate an authentic awareness of the beloved as other, as possessing its own Cartesian privacy and its own micro-temporality. To love the other in full awareness of their otherness is a more profound species of shared social temporality, and with this profundity comes depth of feeling that did not exist and could not exist in childhood. It has been said that a woman’s heart is a ocean of secrets, and perhaps we need not even superadd a qualification of gender to this poetic truth. Shared secrets, withheld from the rest of the world, can be among the most powerful form of shared social temporality, and it is the power of these experiences that moves us (i.e., we experience the sublime) and thus generates profound awareness of the other and depth of feeling in one’s relationship to The Other.

However, love disappoints more often than it satisfies, so that our tentative reaching out to the world in search of love becomes an experiment that is disconfirmed more often than it is confirmed. And even when love satisfies, it rarely endures. Some retreat within themselves, when the pangs of despised love are too powerful, while others, unable to forget the ideal of the lost paradise, continue to seek, and are in rare moments rewarded for their efforts.

The phylogeny of time

The origin of non-human time, of objective time, is the proper concern of the phylogeny of time. Of course, ontogeny and phylogeny are intimately interconnected, and we may even speculate on a temporal recapitulation in which temporal ontogeny recapitulates temporal phylogeny, but I will not pursue this further in the present context.

In terms of the origins of time, or, rather the origins of human time consciousness, interaction with other agents within an environment — i.e., meso-temporality — almost certainly preceded the emergence of self-aware micro-temporality, just as meso-temporal interaction almost certainly preceded those larger temporal formations such as exo-temporality and macro-temporality.

Macro-temporality emerges even later, in terms of specifically human macro-temorality. Before humanity knew itself as a whole (on which cf. the quote from George Friedman that I cited in Humanity as One) we did not know ourselves as a whole either in space or time. It is only with the emergence of human self-knowledge of our species as a whole in time that macro-temporality emerges, and this cannot happen until a fully naturalistic account of human origins emerges with Darwin.

The internal time consciousness of Cartesian privacy emerges from cognitive modernity, much as does historical consciousness. There is a sense in which internal time consciousness is historical consciousness of the self, while historical consciousness is the internal time consciousness of history. Both represent temporal consciousness of a greater order of magnitude than the interactions of meso-temporality. This is another interesting idea that I will not pursue further at present, but which deserves independent exposition.

Cosmological and relativistic time

Objective conceptions of time rooted in mathematics, physics, cosmology, and the natural sciences can be formulated without reference to human time, much less to the structures of micro- and meso-temporality that constitute the greater part of the ordinary business of life. However, science, as a human undertaking, retains its relevance to the human agents who are responsible for the constitute of objective, natural time.

In fact, we run into difficulties when we attempt to formulate a doctrine of time too far removed from human experience, precisely because human experience has been responsible for science, and the truths of science must ultimately be redeemed in human experience.

One is immediately put in mind, in this context, of Newton’s famous formulation from his Principia:

“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.”

Newton implies that human measures of time such as “an hour, a day, a month, a year,” are untrue, because only mathematical time is true time, but Newton’s categories of “relative, apparent, and common time,” are in fact quantitative measures of time in natural history which can be studied and defined with the utmost precision by natural science. Time measurements of a day, a month, and a year are rooted in astronomical events that constitute some of humanity’s first and earliest scientific knowledge. Had Newton gone in the other direction in the litany of apparent time, listing instead “an hour, a minute, a second, …” he would have approached the punctiform present and therefore the ideal limit of micro-temporality.

Despite the relativity of simultaneity that isolates us from the temporality of other dynamic systems independent of our own, there is a sense in which human temporal categories seem to me to retain their relevance throughout the cosmos today — at very least, just because human beings are an interested party in the universe at present — in a way that I do not feel human temporal categories to be relevant to very early cosmological history or to the far flung future of cosmological history.

One way to formulate this would be to put it in the context of the divisions of cosmological history propounded in The Five Ages of the Universe. We live today in the Stelliferous Era, i.e., the Age of Stars. Before the Stelliferous Era came the Primordial Era, which includes the Big Bang, expansion, inflation, and consists in large part of subatomic particles that have not yet congealed into familiar elements and structures. After the Stelliferous Era come the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era, after the stars have burned themselves out and the cosmos goes dark again. This is a classic scenario of cosmological eschatology based on heat death due to entropy.

Human measures of time seem meaningless at the quantum and subatomic scale of the early universe, and these same measures seem equally meaningless at the vast time scales of the universe as it steadily runs down in entropic heat death. Yet, at the present, anthropocentric time scales seem relevant to the universe entire as we know it today (relevant, though not by any means necessary or even privileged), although most of the universe is beyond any meaningful relation to specifically human time, and will remain so.

One justification for the feeling (which I readily admit is my own prejudiced intuition, and I claim no validity for it beyond that) that anthropocentric temporal categories apply throughout the Stelliferous Era is that life as we know it is possible throughout the Stelliferous Era, while life as we know it is not possible during the Primordial Era or during the Degenerate Era or after.

The possibility of life as we know it throughout the Stelliferous Era means the possibility of other species emergent from other solar systems, other planets, other biospheres, and other sentient species emergent from a parallel biological context, functioning according to the same natural laws that govern our world, our bodies, and our minds, means that an approximately anthropocentric (although technically xenocentric) time consciousness exists elsewhere in the Stelliferous Era, and is perhaps pervasive throughout it.

Objective micro-temporality

Although the categories of human time seem irrelevant to either the earliest stages of the universe immediately following the big bang, and perhaps also to the largest structures of space andtime, the “cosmic soup” of the early universe is recognizably a form of micro-temporality, even if it is not microtemporality at the same level of human micro-temporality. Moreover, the micro-temporality of pre- and sub-atomic particles prior to the precipitation of universe from the coalescence of ordinary elements is another paradigmatic instance of meso-temporality: the particles interact, and they can only come together and coalesce into the world we know and love by coming together.

The temporality of the early universe thus closely parallels the temporality of the ontogeny of time in the individual, in so far as the individual’s micro-temporality is always constituted jointly by the meso-temporality of the shared milieu in which the individual finds himself or herself. The micro-temporality of the individual particles of the early cosmic soup is crucially dependent upon the milieu of interacting particles, which is a meso-temporal milieu.

Larger structures of cosmological time — objective exo-temporality, objective macro-temporality, and objective metaphysical temporality — only come above in the fullness of time — lots of time — as the universe matures and new spatio-temporal structures emerge. As novel physical structures emerge, there necessarily emerges an interaction of these larger structures with smaller structures and with other larger structures, and these interactions of ever-increasing size produce the higher levels of objective ecological temporality.

Closing speculation

As ever-larger temporal structures emerge from a universe consolidating its structure, and ever-larger temporal structures emerge from the maturation of human consciousness, these objective and human forms of ecological temporality converge. It would be very difficult to demonstrate a close parallelism between the micro-temporality of consciousness and the micro-temporality of fundamental particles, but in the increasingly more comprehensive temporal categories of ecological temporality the chasm between the two becomes less marked.

At the level of macro-temporality, it is not difficult to see the convergence of human time and objective time, since human life and human civilizations are shaped by macroscopic forces such as geography, and geography is a local expression of cosmology. A human civilization that emerges from its planet-bound condition and asserts itself on a cosmological scale would constitute human beings living on a macro-historical level, and to do so would demand the emergence and cultivation of macro-temporal consciousness.

It may be only at the level of metaphysical temporality (which I also call metaphysical history) that there can be a full convergence of human time and objective time, so that that two ultimately become indistinguishable and therefore one. This may be the ultimate telos of civilization: to establish an identity with the universe at large.

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I have had a little more to say on the above in Addendum on the Origins of Time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Decoy tanks have been in use almost as long as tanks themselves have been in use, employed in an attempt to persuade an enemy to learn the wrong lesson from their intelligence gathering activities.

To speak of induced failure in complex adaptive systems is already to acknowledge a distinction between induced failure and non-induced failure, and beyond this distinction we can make a further distinction between failure that is purposefully induced and failure that is induced but as an unintended consequence of some other action — i.e., failure as an externality. An obvious example of purposefully induced failure is military action undertaken with the intention of causing catastrophic failure on the part of enemy forces. An equally obvious example of induced failure as an unintended consequence is that of environmental damage that results from pollution and the pressures of industrialized society on the ecosystem.

It could be argued that the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which was precipitated by the collapse of the value of the Thai Bhat (much as the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 was precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis), was, for all intents and purposes, an intended failure, as investors had placed the Thai Bhat under considerable pressure by shorting the currency on international currency markets. When a nation-state (or even a quasi-state entity like the Eurozone) finds its currency under pressure by international speculators, it will often protest that the speculators are at fault, while the speculators will say that they are only trying to make a profit, and that they serve a valuable function within the financial community in bringing vulnerabilities to light.

In the past few days we have seen some dramatic examples of this sort of thing, as the downgrading of US government securities by Standard & Poor’s was called a “mistake” by Gene Sperling (NEC director) when it was clearly a carefully deliberated decision (especially in terms of its announcement after close of business on Friday to give markets time to absorb the news before opening on Monday), while Greece and Turkey enacted bans on short selling, although European regulators could not agree on a wide-ranging ban on short sales. Are we to say that this week’s market turmoil was induced by Standard & Poor’s downgrade, so that the ratings agency has a measure of historical agency in bringing this about, or is the ratings agency merely the canary in the coal mine?

Clearly, it becomes a matter of how the boundary is drawn between agency and absence of agency, just as it is a matter of how we draw the boundary between induced and non-induced failure. I think it would quite difficult to formulate an adequate theoretical definition of non-induced failure, and in fact I am not prepared to even suggest anything at this time. Since non-induced failure is when failure “just happens,” there will always be claims made for agency in failure, including the agency of natural forces (say, friction). So I think the better method here is to try to understand induced failure better, and then to define non-induced failure as the complement of the cases of induced failure.

In the present context, we will call a purposefully induced failure a formal failure, while a failure that results from unintended consequences will be called an informal failure. According to this terminology, an old building that has been dynamited to bring it down has experienced a formal failure, while shoddy design or construction practices that have resulted in a building collapsing (as in the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse) is an example of informal failure.

It is a standard mode of argument among conspiracy theorists to claim that an informal failure is really a formal failure, though the mechanisms of purpose in the failure have been disguised by nefarious agents so that what appears, at first sight, to be an informal failure is in fact a formal failure. It could be argued that the attempt to impose purpose upon informal failures is a consequence of what evolutionary psychologists call the agency detector. On an intuitive level, it doesn’t take much sophistication to understand that, 1) individuals want to believe that they understand things that others do not understand, and 2) that this intellectual form of self-aggrandizement plays a role in drawing the boundary between formal and informal failures so as to exclude all informal failures. This, however, is ultimately uninteresting, and I maintain that there is a valid distinction between formal and informal failure. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, so too failure is sometimes just failure and involves no agency.

At a somewhat higher level of sophistication, it is a standard mode of argument among ideologically-motivated partisans that, although informal failures are technically informal failures, any reasonable and responsible person should have seen the unintended consequences that would follow from their actions, so that if people would just take their blinders off they would see the informal failures for the formal failures that they are. Such an argument implies self-deception at some level, whether on the part of participants who are following orders or on the part of those issuing the orders. This argument is important because it brings our attention to the role of self-deception in understanding the world — and I believe the role of self-deception to be under-estimated in human affairs — but it is easy to make sweeping claims in this regard which, when pressed, lead to the denial of the very possibility of informal failures, and the denial of the possibility of informal failure leads to the search for agents responsible for the formal failure — scapegoating and witch-hunts.

The universal search for scapegoats is just as uninteresting as the universal search for nefarious and hidden agents, and so I reject the ideological attempt to draw the boundary between formal and informal failure so as to exclude all informal failure. I have said elsewhere, in another context, that the facts do not speak for themselves. This bears repeating, as does the observation that what is obvious to one person in terms of unintended consequences is in no sense obvious to another person.

There is as yet no standard definition for complex adaptive systems; the discipline is too recent to have settled upon the requisite conventions. The Wikipedia article on complex adaptive systems cites a definition by John Henry Holland: “Cas [complex adaptive systems] are systems that have large numbers of components, often called agents, that interact and adapt or learn.”

If the agents that constitute a complex adaptive system fail to adapt, or adapt poorly, fail to learn or learn the wrong lessons, then such complex adaptive systems are vulnerable to failure. If a complex adaptive system can be induced to adapt poorly, or induced to learn the wrong lesson, then such complex adaptive systems can be induced to reveal vulnerabilities. If the induced vulnerabilities are intentional (that is to say, if they are formal failures), the vulnerability can be exploited to bring about catastrophic failure cascading from the point of the vulnerability.

As we follow out this reasoning we must be careful because matters become complicated very quickly. In all of the above cases we must distinguish between formally inducing failure and informally inducing failure. Taking the example of environmental degradation, we know that some industrial chemicals allowed into the biosphere mimic naturally occurring substances and replace the naturally occurring substances, sometimes to deleterious effect. This in an informally induced poor adaptation that results in a vulnerability. Taking the example of military defeat, a campaign of disinformation can cause the enemy to “learn” the wrong lesson and this can be calculated to open a vulnerability. This is a formally induced learning of an incorrect lesson.

Adaptation and learning occur in the context of interaction, and interaction takes place at many different levels. Following my adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model (cf. Metaphysical Ecology), I hold that interaction takes place on five levels of metaphysical ecology:

macro-interaction, and
metaphysical interaction

Such interaction may take place simultaneously across many different ecological levels, or at one or several levels. All of these interactions carry with them the possibility of adaptation and learning on the part of the agents primarily functioning on the levels in question, and all of these interactions carry with them the possibility of formal or informal failure.

We know from ordinary experience how a complex adaptive system can fail on one level and this failure can cascade bringing about a catastrophic failure of the entire system, even when other ecological levels of the complex adaptive have learned and adapted appropriately. For example, during wars one always hears of soldiers learning lessons on the battlefield (micro- and meso- learning) that have not been learned at an institutional level (meso- and exo- level learning), and thus the institution goes on making the same mistake that the soldiers know to be a mistake but cannot change because they are not empowered to bring about institutional change. These kinds of failures are also very common in business, when frontline employees know policies to be failing, but are required by management to continue a failing policy because the lesson has not yet been learned at an institutional level.

On the other side of this dialectic, it is often the case that people who see the big picture clearly understand the nature of a problem and have learned their lessons (on meso- and exo- levels), but are, for one reason or another, unable to communicate this understanding to meso- and micro- levels, where the same mistakes continue to be made. This is clearly the case with social workers who understand the roots of inter-personal violence (IPV) in families and communities, and although they seek to educate families and communities with all the resources that they have available, the same problems continue to appear over and over again.

I assumed both of the above examples to be generalizable throughout metaphysical ecology), which means that even in ecological systems — and complex adaptive systems are ecological systems — there is just enough compartmentalization for an isolated failure to develop to the point that it can cause a cascading catastrophic failure, even if successful adaptations and effective learning is taking place on other ecological levels.

I assume that in a highly sensitive complex adaptive system that minor failures and disturbances would be rapidly transmitted up and down through all ecological levels of the system. In so far as learning and adaptation are global — meaning not that it takes place on the highest ecological level, but that it takes place across all ecological levels, and that there is a feedback loop that allows one level to learn from the adaptations and learning of other levels — I suggest that a highly sensitive complex adaptive system, while superficially fragile, may represent the more robust and resilient form of order.

The ability to learn from what others have learned — which I have expressed here as learning lessons and adaptations from other ecological levels — might be called higher-order learning, but this is a fancy name for a simple idea… the idea that you don’t have to be the one to burn your finger on the stove to know that it is hot. There is a kind of intellectual maturity involved in learning from the lessons of others, and when this intellectual maturity can be integrated into institutions the resultant institutions would possess a much higher degree of resiliency than those that lack this capacity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 August 2005) defines “combat power” as follows:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply against the opponent at a given time.”

Strangely, this definition does not appear in the online DOD Dictionary of Military Terms.

The U.S. Army, Field Manual 100-5, 1994, sometimes subtitled “Fighting Future Wars,” and frequently characterized as the US Army’s central doctrinal statement, has this to say about combat power:

“Overwhelming combat power is the ability to focus sufficient force to ensure success and deny the enemy any chance of escape or effective retaliation. … Overwhelming combat power is achieved when all combat elements are violently brought to bear quickly, giving the enemy no opportunity to respond with coordinated or effective opposition. … Four primary elements — maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership — combine to create combat power — the ability to fight. Their effective application and sustainment, in concert with one another, will decide the outcome of campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements. Leaders integrate maneuver, firepower, and protection capabilities in a variety of combinations appropriate to the situation.”

I don’t have my own copy of Field Manual 100-5 (clearly my library is inadequate) so I had to rely on an edited text available on the internet; I don’t know how well this text I consulted represents the complete text, so I offer this above quote with this caution. In any case, the above quote gives the intuitively accessible formulation of combat power as “the ability to fight,” which is clear enough, but also probably tautological.

Returning to the definition in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 August 2005), it seems to me that the total destructive force that can be brought to bear is only half of the equation of the ability to fight. The other half of the equation of the ability to fight is being able to continue fighting as one’s adversary is applying his total destructive force against oneself. In fact, the “sustainment” mentioned in Fighting Future Wars is predicated upon just this.

Thus we might formulate this other half of combat power as follows:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can withstand from opponent at a given time.”

Which together with the earlier definition gives the following:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply against the opponent at a given time and place while resisting the total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which the adversary of that same military unit/formation can apply at the same time and place.”

I think that this is a little more comprehensive conception of combat power, and while we all know from the first principle of war that an objective must be established and from the second principle of war that one must take the offensive, because only an offensive achieves decisive results, it nevertheless remains true that even in undertaking offensive action to attain an objective, one’s forces must resist the destructive power of the enemy as much as it must bring its own destructive force to bear on that same enemy. Sustaining combat means surviving combat (including surviving defensive action undertaken to counter one’s offensive actions) so that one can continue to fight.

I can appeal again to the definition of combat power (cited above) in Field Manual 100-5 for a parallel definition of combat survival power, which is to say, combat resiliency. If combat power is to, “deny the enemy any chance of escape or effective retaliation… giving the enemy no opportunity to respond with coordinated or effective opposition,” then combat resiliency is the power to escape and conduct effective retaliation, responding to attack with coordinated and effective opposition.

It would be misleading to call this defensive combat power, in contradistinction to offensive combat power, as the two are indissolubly linked, although there is a certain temptation to employ this obvious formulation. Nevertheless, the temptation must be overcome: in taking the initiative, closing in an engagement, one brings one’s force to bear, and one’s opponent must survive this initial onslaught in order to make use of combat resiliency to respond effectively. However, that effective response can take no other form than bringing one’s force to bear, and this bringing of one’s force to bear is indistinguishable from that action of the force with the initiative.

There is, however, a legitimate distinction to be made here, so I will distinguish in what follows between internal combat power (or internal combat resiliency) and external combat power (or external combat resiliency). Whatever the philosophical compromises entailed by the internal/external distinction, in the present context of military affairs the philosophical baggage is to be preferred to the military baggage, which latter is more freighted with potentially misleading meanings. This distinction will be useful in what follows in the development of battle ecology.

It could be argued that, since a military objective must be defined and offensive action undertaken to secure the objective (because only offensive action can obtain a decisive result), that the temporal order of taking the initiative to close and engage is definitive. In an ideal combat environment, in which an initial onslaught might annihilate the enemy constituting a purely offensive action with no defensive component, the temporal order distinguishing offensive and defensive action (side A attacks; side B responds with defense) might allow us to make a clear distinction between offensive and defensive combat power. No combat environment is ideal, however. Any engagement will involve the reciprocity of combat power, so that temporal order of the initiative or the venerable offense/defense distinction is less relevant than might be supposed. There may be a psychological efficacy in first blood and that gives disproportionate power to the initiative, but any initiative must be sustained through combat resiliency or the decision will go to the opposition if it possesses superior combat resiliency, regardless of which side took the initiative.

This latter observation is particularly obvious when we consider an assault upon a fixed position, as in a siege, a trench raid, or the taking of a hill, when an offensive action can be utterly dissipated by defensive action so that nothing remains of the combat power of the attacking unit and the objective is not attained. The point here is that resisting the combat power of the enemy is not strictly or exclusively a concern of defense, but is equally integral to offensive action.

I want to here consider combat power in the context of battle ecology. In Metaphysical Ecology and Bottlenecks as Vulnerability and as Opportunity I began to sketch the concept of battle ecology. In the former I suggested that battle ecology is a more comprehensive concept that the now common “battlespace,” while in the latter I suggested that:

“A fully developed battle ecology would, in the best ecological fashion, demonstrate the inter-action of these cases, showing a kind of combat panarchy in which the greatest movements of strategy are revealed on the ground to the frontline soldier (either as an asset or a liability), and equally the actions of an individual frontline soldier are seen to travel upward through the strategico-tactical nexus until they echo at the highest levels of strategic opportunity and vulnerability.”

The “cases” mentioned above are divisions within the strategico-tactical nexus that I have formulated — constrained and unconstrained tactics, operations, and strategy — and I further developed the idea of the strategico-tactical nexus in Addendum on the Strategico-Tactical Nexus, in which I introduced the strategico-tactical continuum and strategico-tactical permutations.

strategico-tactical nexus

Battle ecology gives us a theoretical framework for understanding both aspects of combat power — bringing one’s destructive force to bear while resisting the destructive force that the enemy brings to bear. Battle, like an ecosystem, is a complex adaptive system, and we can model battle along ecological principles. This is the central idea of battle ecology. The theoretical framework of battle ecology makes it possible to understand combat power in terms of ecological resiliency.

strategico-tactical Continuum

The Wikipedia article on ecological resilience cites four properties of resilience in complex adaptive systems:

Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover (before crossing a threshold which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible).
Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed.
Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.”
Panarchy: the degree to which a certain hierarchical level of an ecosystem is influenced by other levels.

A military unit is a complex adaptive system, and a battle between two or more military units is in turn a complex adaptive system that can be described in the terminology of resilience. The two aspects of combat power delineated above suggest two perspectives on each property of resilience, which I will call internal resilience and external resilience, as follows:

Internal Latitude: augmenting one’s own latitude so as to maximize the amount one can change before losing the ability to recover

External Latitude: compromising the enemy’s latitude in order to force the enemy past a threshold beyond which recovery is impossible

Internal Resistance: augmenting one’s own resistance to a change of one’s internal systems imposed by the enemy

External Resistance: compromising the enemy’s internal system; imposing involuntary change upon the enemy despite attempts to resist this change

Internal Precariousness: safeguarding against precariousness of one’s own forces; finding innovative way to increase the limits of one’s own threshold of precariousness

External Precariousness: precipitating the precariousness of enemy forces; finding ways to decrease the enemy’s limits and to force the enemy to and beyond the threshold of precariousness

Internal Panarchy: promoting the seamless integration of panarchy among one’s own strategico-tactical nexus

External Panarchy: forcing ruptures in the panarchy of the enemy’s strategico-tactical nexus, or exploiting any such discontinuities as manifest themselves

Combat is all about resiliency. In a fully developed combat ecology it would be possible to distinguish while noting the integration of bringing one’s force to bear tactically (tactical resiliency), bringing one’s force to bear operationally (operational resiliency), and bringing one’s force to bear strategically (strategic resiliency). Bringing one’s force to bear in an ecologically coordinated action, so that tactical, operational, and strategic forces act in concert to reinforce each other constitutes resiliency across the strategico-tactical nexus. This is precisely the sense of internal panarchy mentioned above, namely, “promoting the seamless integration of panarchy among one’s own strategico-tactical nexus.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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