C e l e b r a t i n g   i d e a s   b o t h   b e a u t i f u l   a n d   r e v o l u t i o n a r y .

Monday, June 30, 2008

Asparagus on Mars


Photo: Frank Vincentz


"Sailors
Fighting in the dance hall.
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go.
It's the freakiest show.
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy.
Oh man!
Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show.
Is there life on Mars?

As an escape for the fantasy through science fiction or as a literal terraformed escape from an overpopulated Earth, Mars has been our favorite alternate world since long before the wistful and surreal David Bowie song.

Last week, two news stories appeared in quick succession: on Wednesday, the Environmental News Network reported on climatologist James Hansen's speech to the National Press Club, warning of fast-approaching climatic tipping points beyond which global warming will become uncontrollable. Two days later, on Friday, BBC aired a NASA news brief marveling at the unexpected fertility of Martian soil analyzed by the Phoenix lander. Quoted in the article was a NASA chemist, opining that "You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well."

The juxtaposition of events suggested an unstated but irresistible conclusion: at least we have a getaway planet. But soil with some asparagus-friendly nutrients does not guarantee easy living on Mars. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart write in their book Cradle to Cradle, the idea of terraforming of Mars "provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we'll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge."

James Hansen's Wednesday warning to the government and public about Earth's climate is dire:

"Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.

"The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation."

Beyond simply sounding an alarm, Hansen offers policy proposals and a call to action, specifically in the form of a carbon tax:

"A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

"Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

"Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses."

Difficult as a carbon tax might initially be to draft into law, compare that effort with the Herculean labor of wrestling Mars into some semblance of habitability. In the words again of McDonough and Braungart,

"Let's not make a big mess here and go somewhere less hospitable even if we figure out how. Let's use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet."


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Monday, June 23, 2008

Reimagining the American Dream

Photo: New York Times

One of today's three top most-read articles in the New York Times is titled "The New Trophy Home, Small and Ecological." Highlighting the growing popularity and social cache of green building, the article centers around a luxurious $2.8 million dwelling recently constructed in Venice, CA, earning the highest Platinum level of the LEED ratings' energy certification.

Actors and luminaries of Hollywood visited the Venice home, considering purchase or seeking inspiration for their own LEED-certified home building projects. The Times article compares LEED certification to "a Prada label," observing

"Custom-built homes dominate the first batch of certified dwellings. Today, dinner-party bragging rights are likely to include: 'Let me tell you about my tankless hot water heater.' Or 'what’s the R value of your insulation?'"
Certainly it is inspiring that not only are the rich and famous opting to live in zero-energy houses, but that the news story describing these homes reached the most-read list. More inspiring still, however, are the reader comments following this piece. Some samples:

"No. I never had a giant overblown tract house MacMansion, so I won't miss it. Price? Green should be cheaper once you get rid of the size and useless gizmos. I have an old house, well designed originally and updated with insulation and a lighter colored roof. The cistern is still out back for gray water from rain. We need a national program for rooftop solar, and I have more to do - but my costs over time versus a tiny utility bill and a very comfortable house, I have a bargain! And a big kitchen garden - I eat for almost free in the summer. Old small well designed houses can be green gems. I've got one - who needs a plaque?"
- Missbike, New Orleans.

"To make a building truly green you also have to make it last a long time. To do that it better be beautiful. If it's beautiful it will be cared for. If it's cared for it will endure. Enduring architecture requires artful design, none of which was mentioned in the description; and I am guessing it's not one of the LEED requirements. Beauty can be more enduring than technical proficiency. It's an important distinction."
- Michel Pariseau, Deep River, CT

"The LEED approach to more responsible construction is well intentioned. Yet, design organized by checklists and point systems promotes fragmented thinking that disconnects us and what we build from genuine ecological processes. Wrapping the architecture of the box in a 'green' lexicon does not bring us closer to living in harmony with nature's renewing rhythms. 'Green' materials and building systems do little to promote ecological dwelling if our structures are not shaped by the geometries of sunlight, the cycles of wind and water, the colors of local plants and the spatial dynamics of the land. To design homes and communities that are actually ecological, lay down the checklists and let go of your ego's grab for gathering green points. Walk outside, observe the patterns of Earth and climate and imagine forms of dwelling that harmonize and delight in what you see."
- lawlor358, larkspur, california

"Oh dear, can someone please inform the 'environmentalists' that their landscape is covered with a non-native invasive grass (Pennisetum setaceum)?"
- elg29, Brasilia

Platinum LEED-certified home in Venice, CA - $2.8 million

A news story about that home in the New York Times - $1.25, newstand price

A reading populace smarter than the breaking news - priceless.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Good Watermelons Make Good Neighbors


Watermelon leaves. Photo: Derek Ramsey.

"Several hundred kilometres from the simmering conflicts between pastoralists and farmers [over natural resources] in Sudan's Darfur region, the two communities in the village of Gereigikh in North Kordofan State have learnt to cool the tension with watermelons."

So opens a recent report from the Global Policy Forum, an international watchdog organization following UN policy decisions.

Drought has scorched North Kordofan for nearly half a century, and precious land and water must be shared between crop farmers and herders, setting the stage for strife. However, the Global Policy Forum report continues, quoting a village leader,

"'Our farmers discovered that whenever the Kawahla tribe [traditionally pastoral] brought their livestock into the fields, the animal droppings helped improve production, so the members of the Gawamha [traditionally farmers] started planting watermelons to attract the livestock to the field,' recalled Ad-Dukhri Al-Sayed, a community leader in Gereigikh, about 100km northeast of the state capital, El Obeid. 'The situation has improved so much. Now everyone lives in peace, we never have problems.'"

As the report notes, clashes in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan are more complex, spurred not only by climatic hardship and resource shortage but by ethnic and political forces.

However, the truce between North Kordofan herders and crop farmers is a vital and timely step toward addressing the strains climate change continues to place upon the area. The Global Policy Forum report refers to a 2007 UN document highlighting the effects of increasing desertification:

"[The] scale of historical climate change, as recorded in Northern Darfur, is almost unprecedented: the reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The impact of climate change is considered to be directly related to the conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move south to find pasture."

A member of development NGO SOS Sahel UK sums up,

"The two communities in North Kordofan have developed a symbiotic relationship - they have relationships in the market place over the supply of manure, labour, they buy livestock from each other. These relationships have cemented over the years."

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mangroves and the Hungry Tide

Their roots provide habitat for young shrimp and crabs; their leaves are food for the manatee. In the branches of Florida Everglades mangroves, roseate spoonbills find a nesting spot, while the mangroves of the Sundarbans forest in West Bengal and Bangladesh support the masked finfoot.

Roseate spoonbill with young. Photo from the National Park Service.


Mangroves in Sri Lanka helped to buffer coastal villages from the ravages of 2004's tsunami. In Myanmar's Irawaddy Delta, the mangroves have fallen to loggers, and over eroded shores where they once grew, the storm surges of Cyclone Nargis raged unchecked.

Recent studies have underscored the importance of mangroves in maintaining the vitality of estuarine ecosystems and protecting humans from extreme weather patterns. At Mongabay.com, a recent article describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis:
"Four days after the disaster Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), spoke about the mangrove-effect in Irrawaddy. As reported by the AFP news, Pitsuwan said that increased population in the delta led to 'encroachment into the mangrove forests which used to serve as buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential areas... All those lands have been destroyed. Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces.'"

Dr Deborah Brosnan, president and founder of the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, warns that all river deltas and their human populations are especially vulnerable to intensified weather patterns due to climate change.

Sundarbans mangrove swamp. Satellite photo from NASA Earth Observatory.


In the Sundarbans region, impenetrable mangrove swamp and invincible Royal Bengal tiger have managed so far to protect one another from human destruction. Writes Caroline Alexander in The New Yorker magazine,
"Washed by powerful, twice-daily tides flowing from the Bay of Bengal, and regularly buffeted by cyclones, the Sundarbans has always been unstable, its low landmasses constantly being eroded, silted, and reconfigured. Upstream pollution, from Calcutta; increasing salinity, caused by naturally occurring displacement of freshwater sources; and depredation of the forest by villagers cutting wood are long-standing threats. Still, the Sundarbans remains 'intact,' thanks partly to stringent conservation measures and to its inaccessibility, and partly to the Sundarbans tiger, whose presence insures that the forest is too dangerous to enter casually. 'Without the tiger, we would have no forest,' I was told by villagers, fishermen, wood collectors, honey gatherers—by all who cautiously skirt the forest." (Read more at New Yorker online)

Royal Bengal tiger. Photo from Bergoiata.org.


However, threats to the Sundarbans and other world mangrove forests are multiplying to include new issues, from overharvesting of shrimp to accelerated climate change. Mangrove forests enjoying fewer environmental regulations, such those in as Indonesia or Mexico, stand a still greater risk, as reported in an Environmental News Service article quoting a UN report.

Here is an interview at Grist.org with Alfredo Quarto, director of the Mangrove Action Project, on initiatives to preserve and restore these intricate, beautiful ecosystems.

The Hungry Tide is a compelling novel by Amitav Ghosh about the Sundarbans, its people and environment, and the turbulence which characterizes both its political history and its continuing ecological balance.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Introducing Webcasts

As of the previous post on Symbiotic Planet, we are introducing audio webcasts for our features, indicated by clickable links

Listen to webcast.

Please let us know if this tool is useful to you, and feel free to contact us any with thoughts or suggestions in the comments or at trostomaten @ gmail.com.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: Symbiotic Planet

Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution, by Lynn Margulis. Basic Books, 1998.

Listen to webcast of "Book Review: Symbiotic Planet"

"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" So opens every round of Twenty Questions, with a query intended as the base classification for anything on earth.

But is it really so simple? Lynn Margulis begins her book Symbiotic Planet with a challenge to our received notions about the forms of life on earth. Introducing us to "a strange sort of 'seaweed' that is not seaweed at all," she describes a green organism found in tidepools along the coast of Brittany in northwest France. Superficially similar to green stringy seaweed, these verdant threads are in fact thin transparent worms, inside whose bodies photosynthetic algae grow. The worms luxuriate on the surface of warm shallow tidepools, allowing their internal algae to soak up the sun, synthesize sugars, and deliver the worm hosts a nourishing meal intravenously, as it were. In turn, the algae benefit from the worms' motility, which takes them to the sunniest spots to photosynthesize, or buries them in the sand to hide from predators. Waste products from the worms' digestion become nutrients for the algaes' growth.

Animal, or vegetable? In a symbiotic relationship such as this, the answer is not clear-cut. Frederick William Keeble, the discoverer of the seaweed-worms, compromised in his 1920's treatise by dubbing them "plant-animals." Furthermore, the case of Convoluta roscoffensis, as the seaweed-worms are scientifically known, is anything but anomolous. In Symbiotic Planet, Margulis gives us example after example of symbiotic partnerships between jellyfish and algae, between cows and protists, all defying the rigid boundaries we normally take for granted to divide kingdoms of life.

A simple hand-lens suffices to detect the symbiotic green algae inside their transparent worm hosts. Turn to a scanning electron microscope to probe the internal workings of an animal cell as it digests sugar. Inside the cell are mitochondria, oxidizing the sugar to release energy stored in its chemical bonds. These mitochondria, though so integrally incorporated in an animal's cells, so deeply implicated in its very sustenance, have an independent ancestry as free-living, oxygen-breathing bacteria. Over generations their symbiosis with host cells became so routinized that neither symbiont could survive without the other, and the oxygen-breathing bacteria renounced their individuality to become mitochondria, organelles inside cells. Mitochondria still carry their own bacterial DNA, resembling that of modern-day independent oxygen-breathing bacteria.

Symbiotic Planet is, first and foremost, a book about innovation. Describing the incorporation of free-living bacteria as mitochondria and other cell organelles, 'serial endosymbiosis theory' is Margulis's prime scientific innovation, and the story of this theory's development forms a major thread in the narrative. Part scientific memoir, Symbiotic Planet chronicles Margulis's brilliant and unorthadox career, as well as her ideological influences ranging from such luminaries as Gregor Mendel to the obscure but prescient Konstantin Merezhkovsky (1855-1921). A Russian botanist specializing in the study of lichens, Merezhkovsky rejected Darwinism as failing to provide a complete explanation for the development of new species through natural selection.

Konstantin Merezhkovsky



According to Merezhkovsky and Margulis, it is not natural selection but symbiosis which truly advances evolutionary innovation. Natural selection can hone the adaptation of a species to its niche, but Darwin's Origin of Species fails to live up to its title in that it does not describe the origin of any new species at all, but merely the development of existing species under selection pressures. The overlooked importance of symbiosis in combining disparate life-forms to create a new whole would have been clear to Merezhkovsky through his study of lichens, which are in fact a symbiotic pairing of algae and fungi.

Haeckel, Lichenes. 1904.


Symbiotic Planet paints for us a new picture of nature. While the eat-or-be-eaten, survival-of-the-fittest model familiar from introductory accounts of Darwinism appropriately describes inter- and intra-species competition driving natural selection, there is more to the story. The symbiotic incorporation of bacteria as mitochondria took place over the course of a "violent, competitive, and truce-forming past," writes Margulis. Having tried and failed to eat another bacterium, some primal cell must have made the decision to keep its undigested and still-living dinner as a functioning member of its own expanded body. This creative merger represented an evolutionary jump unachievable by simple random genetic variation.

Our neglect of symbiosis is not confined to an academic debate on the nature of evolution. Not only do we reconstruct from the fossil record an imagined history in which symbiosis plays but a minor role, we envisage our own future on the planet as an extension of the simplistic survival-of-the-fittest paradigm. Margulis whimsically describes her bemusement on watching an episode of Star Trek for the first time:

"I was struck by its silliness. The lack of plants, the machinate landscape, and in the starship, the absence of all nonhuman life-forms seemed bizarre. Humans, if someday they trek in giant spaceships to other planets, will not be alone. In space as on Earth, the elements of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus and a few others, must recycle. This recycling is no suburban luxury; it is a principle of life from which no technology can deliver us. Human voyages into deep space require ecosystems composed of many nonhuman organisms to recycle waste into food. Only very short stints in constant contact with mother Earth are possible in the absence of 'ecosystem services.'"

Although hypothetical future intergalactic adventure may seem like a frivolous example, the human-centric character of these imagined odysseys is telling. Such narrowness of focus has brought on the crisis of dwindling nonrenewable resources, such as peak oil. Bent only on the immediate extension and expedition of our existing technologies, we have used the resources which are readily at hand, however temporarily, and without thought for collateral consequence.

Margulis writes at the end of Symbiotic Planet's opening chapter,

"The tendency of 'independent' life is to bind together and reemerge in a new wholeness at a higher, larger level of organization. I suspect that the near future of Homo sapiens as a species requires our reorientation toward the fusions and mergers of the planetmates that have preceded us in the microcosm."

Rather than using oil to power lawn mowers on municipal grounds, why not move to a symbiotic solution, as Silicon Valley has recently done in employing goats to graze down brush-covered areas? For that oil we have already converted to plastic now littering drains and clogging sewers, perhaps newly-discovered plastic-eating microbes can break it down. Both these solutions are merely preliminary moves toward a more symbiotic mode of innovation.

Symbiotic Planet closes with a chapter on Gaia theory, the study originating from James Lovelock's observation that the Earth's surface behaves like a living system in homeostasis. Although Margulis advances as motivation for Symbiotic Planet the quip "Gaia is just symbiosis as seen from space," the final chapter on Gaia theory is the book's weakest section.

While the rest of the book is bold and original, the chapter on Gaia theory is mainly reactionary, and herein lies its disappointment. Margulis spends a large proportion of the chapter in disclaimers and debunkings of romantic notions nonscientific people might draw from a misunderstanding of Gaia theory's premises. To the mythologically and anti-scientifically inclined, Gaia and the concept of a living Earth may appear to represent a antropomorphized Earth-mother goddess who personally manages the planet's cycles.

Certainly such a picture is a misapprehension of Gaia theory, which though fancifully named is a serious branch of science. Every scientist rankles at undeserved censure from anti-science detractors, but worse is to be mistakenly applauded as a champion of their cause, as Gaia theory sometimes has been. More intriguing to read, however, would be a development of the fascinating ideas Margulis presents in the preceding chapter of Symbiotic Planet, detailing the manner in which symbiosis allowed life to extend its range to dry shores, beyond the nutrient-filled sea where it originated. By gradual collaborations and fusions, life became more and more adapted for carrying its necessary elements to new frontiers. Ever more creative instances of symbiosis went hand in hand with the expansion of ecosystems to cover the whole Earth, resulting in the Gaia phenomenon of a self-regulating, living globe. A symbiotic planet is a homeostatic planet.

Margulis's objections to the popular Earth-goddess myth extend beyond the defense of Gaia theory as legitimate science. Promoting conservation as our responsibility to "heal our sick planet" is, to Margulis, simply another instance of human hubris and inflated self-importance. She writes,

"...[T]he planet is not human, nor does it belong to humans. No human culture, despite its inventiveness, can kill life on this planet, were it even to try. More an enormous collection of interacting ecosystems, the Earth as Gaian regulatory physiology transcends all individual organisms. Humans are not the center of life, nor is any other single species."

A few paragraphs later, discussing the early evolution of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), Margulis continues,

"Oxygen was expelled as a metabolic waste product. This waste, at first disastrous, eventually powered life's continued growth. New wastes test life's tolerance and stimulate life's creativity. The oxygen we need to breathe began as a toxin; it still is. The oxygen release from millions of cyanobacteria resulted in a holocaust far more profound than any human environmental activity. Pollution is natural."

These passages sound, at first blush, shockingly anti-conservationist. If pollution is natural, should we stop worrying about the emissions from our cars, in the expectation that some carbon monoxide-loving organism will evolve to lap up our exhaust? Should we throw our plastic bottles in the ocean to provide dinner for some future phthalate-lover?

Certainly we could, Margulis opines, destroying not life in the long run but merely ourselves. To quote from Symbiotic Planet's concluding chapters,

"The planet will not permit our populations to continue to expand. Runaway populations of bacteria, locusts, roaches, mice, and grass always collapse. Their own wastes disgust as crowding and severe shortage ensue."
As to the continuation of life after our demise, Margulis writes,
"The notion that we can destroy all life, including bacteria thriving in the water tanks of nuclear power plants or boiling hot vents, is ludicrous. I hear our nonhuman brethren snickering, 'Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now,' they sing about us in harmony."

Reading such passages generates at first an uncomfortable feeling that the environmental movement is being cut down to size as a rather mean and self-serving endeavor. No longer our hope to revitalize our engagement in Earth's ecosystems, it seems, in an existential turn of plot, to be merely our last bet at saving our own miserable skins.

The foregoing chapters of Symbiotic Planet, however, hold in themselves the bright alternative to this dour prospect. "We" are not in fact an isolated or isolable phenomenon. As Margulis beautifully puts it, we are "a kind of baroque edifice," having "guts and eyelashes festooned with bacterial and animal symbionts." We are a product of our "coevolving, pointillist bacterial ancestry." Saving ourselves cannot be a mean or narrow enterprise, because it will require a practical realization of the fact that we are not independent individuals, but emergent phenomena resulting from the cooperation of myriad disparate participants. If we can become conscious symbionts in the future, just as we are unconscious products of past and present symbioses, then all that "we" are and all we touch stands a chance at survival and continued thriving.

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Remembering Richard Rorty: An Email Interview with Emrys Westacott

On this day one year ago, the eminent American philosopher Richard Rorty died of pancreatic cancer. His philosophical career had been long and rich, leaving us, among many other writings, the autobiographical essay "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" from which this blog takes its name.

Please join me in welcoming today Emrys Westacott, professor of philosophy at Alfred University. Emrys is the author of articles "The Ethics of Gossiping" and "The Rights and Wrongs of Rudeness," discussed in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. He has also written the short story "The Placebo Effect," and is co-author of the book Thinking Through Philosophy: An Introduction. Emrys has graciously agreed to discuss with us some of Rorty's ideas, their origins and their influence both within philosophy and in the wider context of modern culture.

RLM: One of the strengths of the essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” is the window it provides into the evolution of Rorty's thought. Starting from an early view akin to Platonism, supporting a model of truth whereby our statements mirror an absolute and objective outside world, Rorty narrates his maturation to a pragmatist position which measures the value of ideas not by a priori principles, but by their usefulness to the flourishing of human life. Could you tell us a bit about some of the turning points in this development? I think you mentioned you had recently bought Rorty's two last books. What were some of the notable ideas from those writings?

EGW: In a recent autobiographical essay and in some of the articles published in Volume IV of his Philosophical Papers (Philosophy as Cultural Politics), Rorty suggests, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that the main forces keeping objectivism alive are professional as much as philosophical. That is, in a culture where natural science enjoys huge prestige, other academics and intellectuals want to be thought of as similar to scientists. So they form themselves into groups of "experts" who claim to have undergone a special training that gives them unique knowledge and skills. In analytic philosophy, this means an understanding of argumentation and conceptual analysis. Applying these skills to the perennial problems of philosophy—mind-body, free will, the definition of knowledge, etc. - they see themselves as making progress in the same sense that they believe the natural sciences make progress: viz. by getting closer to the truth.

But in Rorty's view this self-conception is a form of self-serving self-deception. Graduate students in philosophy buy into it because they have to "play the game", and this game gives them neat, well-defined projects to undertake and showcase their abilities. But it's misguided because it rests on a mistaken view of natural science. Rorty accepts the view of science laid out in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Groups of specialized, professionalized scientists make progress not by getting closer to the truth but by solving particular puzzles that they have inherited from their predecessors. The solutions they work out throw up new puzzles, and so on ad infinitum.

Rorty made his early reputation by publishing articles on philosophy of mind and philosophy of language that reflected his analytic training. He worked for a long time at Princeton, one of the hot-houses of analytic philosophy, alongside people like Saul Kripke. But in 1978 he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which marked a turning point in his career.

Essentially, this book argued that the philosophical problems addressed by the great modern thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant were no longer interesting or relevant. Since most analytic philosophy was devoted to the same problems, this also went for much twentieth century philosophy. In its place, Rorty argued for what he called a "hermeneutic" conception of philosophy. In later writings, including his most recent, he clarified his view of what philosophy is all about. Basically, he holds, like Hegel, that philosophy is one of the ways in which a culture tries to achieve self-awareness, one of the ways in which a culture reflects on how it has come about, where it seems to be heading, where it would like to be heading, and what might be done to help it in that direction.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argues against the idea that the mind is a place where nature, the world, reality, or whatever you want to call it, is mirrored or represented. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Descartes, Locke and other theorists of the scientific revolution talked about "ideas" and worried about how we could be sure that our ideas corresponded to an objective reality outside the mind. In the twentieth century, following the lead of Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, people focused on language rather than on the mind. This was considered a great advance since whereas mind is ghostly and not publicly observable, language is in the public domain, so to speak.

But Rorty argues that the "linguistic turn" isn't much of an advance at all. Linguistic philosophy is still held captive by the idea that knowledge or truth consists of an accurate representation of a reality that exists independently of us. The underlying point of view is still representationalist. Descartes had taken the mind to be the vehicle of representation with ideas as the units of reference. Analytic philosophy assumes that language is the vehicle of representation with words or concepts as the referential units. The basic error is the same in both cases.

The error in question is the assumption that we can assess how well we are representing reality. We can't. To do so would be to take a sideways on view of the relation between language and reality, identifying the "hitching posts" where words connect directly to things.

Rorty develops this critique in his subsequent writings. In doing so he claims to be working squarely in the tradition of American pragmatism., unpacking the insights of William James and John Dewey. Of course, given his uncompromising relativism, this infuriates many of those who see themselves as the true guardians of the pragmatist flame.

After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty published several volumes of essays: most notably, Consequences of Pragmatism, Contingency, irony and solidarity, and four volumes of philosophical papers. There is a tremendous amount of overlap in all of these, although personally I find him to be such an engaging writer that the repetition is rarely tiresome. The critique of objectivism or representationalism remains central to his thinking throughout. But other blossoms appeared, most notably his increasing interest in literature and his defense of gradualist progressive politics.


RLM: To the mind of a scientist, Rorty's variety of relativism is quite appealing because he appears to invoke a Darwinian notion of adaptiveness. Ideas are good and useful if they help us cope with our environment; thinking is the specialized skill humans have evolved just as spiders have evolved the skill of spinning silk. Rorty describes this as a naturalization of Hegel, because it obviates the need for a teleological view of history progressing towards increased rationality. Such self-organized adaptive evolution is exactly the kind of model scientists use to explain situations which would otherwise appear teleological (for example James Lovelock's Daisyworld model in explaining why Gaia theory is not teleological). Is this Darwinian bent unique to Rorty among relativists? Do you think that Rorty's love of nature (orchid searching, bird watching) influenced this aspect of his philosophy?

EGW: The Darwinian bent of Rorty's relativism isn't unique. Earlier pragmatists like James and Dewey had also tried to incorporate the theory of evolution. So, too, did Nietzsche, even though he tends to misrepresent Darwin's own thinking. You can also see the ever-increasing influence of Darwin's "dangerous idea" in other areas of philosophy, most notably ethics. But Rorty certainly presses the implications of Darwinism more consistently and forcefully than most.

He is especially good, I think, at explaining how a Darwinian perspective renders obsolete certain sorts of philosophical debate. Ever since Plato, mind, reason, and language have been viewed as somehow non-natural, as being the part of us that is divine. But as you say, Rorty continually stresses the fact that mind, rationality, and language are natural phenomena, thrown up by evolution. They should be viewed in the same way that we view something like our prehensile thumb.

The ability to persuade other humans to do what we wanted by using speech turned out to be useful. So did thinking in certain ways that we came to call "logical". But there is nothing non-natural about logos. Language doesn't have the intrinsic function of representing the world; logic doesn't have the inherent purpose of leading us to Truth. It's just that using words in certain ways tends to promote our well-being. So, too, does demanding that people abide by certain conventions (e.g. avoiding incest, sneezing into a handkerchief, or agreeing that if p is true then not p is false).

Norms are expectations that a community has regarding a person's behaviour, including linguistic behaviour. They can be enforced in many ways. A hundred thousand years ago, a member of the group who killed another member might be chased out of the cave; today they are tried and imprisoned. A hundred thousand years ago, someone who refused to assert q even though they accepted if p then q and p, might have been hit over the head with a bone; today they receive a poor grade on their logic exam. But the rule they are violating has no supra-human authority.

Many non-relativists are shocked by this attitude. They insist that the rules of valid inference, for instance, have a status that is very different from some norm of etiquette. But Rorty cheerfully denies this. In his view, the only justification for any norm is its utility. So all norms can be ranged on a continuum. The laws of logic are just abstract norms that are deeply entrenched due to the fact that their utility has been well established.

Rorty sees any departure from this way of thinking as a failure to be thoroughly and consistently naturalistic. Someone who holds that there is something inherently rational or correct about the laws of logic is implying that what we call "rational" or "logical" accords with Reason itself. But this phrase "Reason itself" indicates a return to some sort of Platonism. Bits of nature—such as our conventions governing the way we use symbols—are assessed according to their relation to something that is not part of nature. Rorty often describes thinking of this sort - with deliberate abusiveness - as believing in "spooks".

I really couldn't say if Rorty's love of nature influenced this aspect of his thought. I suppose it's possible that spending a lot of time immersed in nature might reinforce his sense that nature is all there is and all there needs to be.


RLM: I have another question about Rorty's relation to science. One of the most common labels to be associated with Rorty is that of relativism, and one of the most familiar and popularly accepted versions of relativism is moral relativism. Most of us would agree that one can't morally judge the actions of another person without taking into consideration that person's cultural norms and individual circumstances. However, the spirit of the scientific method contrasts strongly with that of moral relativism, at least superficially: experimental results or proofs of theorems are supposed to be reproducible by anyone, and hence independent of circumstantial factors in a scientist's environment. One possible response to this contrast would be to say that relativism doesn't apply in science, at least in any form similar to moral relativism. But what about a field like environmentalism, which stands at the intersection of science and ethics? If Al Gore and a climate-change skeptic are in a debate, they will make scientific claims as well as ethical judgments. Can ideas like Rorty's Darwinian adaptiveness help us formulate a version of relativism appropriate to this field? What about a situation where immediate human interests are opposed to the larger interests of preserving the environment?

EGW: A general idea that permeates much of Rorty's thinking is this: sharp distinctions should often be replaced by the idea of points on a spectrum. A paradigmatic example of this shift was provided by one of Rorty's analytic heroes, Willard Van Orman Quine in his famous article "Two Dogmas of Empiricism."

Quine argued against the view that there is a sharp line to be drawn between analytic and synthetic statements, the former true by definition, the latter just contingently true. Instead, he argued, our belief system is like a spider's web. Those at the periphery can be revised with little effect on the rest of the system. These are beliefs like, "the tree outside my window is a Norway spruce." Beliefs at the centre of the web, on the other hand - e.g. 2+2=4 - can only be revised at great cost to the system. These are the ones we are inclined to think of as a priori truths. Change these and we have to change everything. So we come to view them as necessary truths. But in principle, no belief is immune from revision. Indeed, this critical attitude is the hallmark of what we call the scientific approach.

Rorty - like any good pragmatist - views the distinction between factual and evaluative statements in an analogous way. Ever since Hume philosophers have worried about the fact-value gap and the problem of deriving an 'ought' from an 'is'. But Rorty's view is that our judgments exist on a spectrum of reasonableness. Those that have proved their worth for a long time are well-established and we think anyone who denies them is being unreasonable. That's all a "fact" is: it's a belief that has become uncontroversial in the relevant community.

But value judgments can be well-established too. Someone who thinks it would be good to bring back slavery would be viewed as utterly unreasonable. We'd say they were "wrong" just as we'd say they were wrong if they claimed that the South won the civil war. There is no essential difference between the ways factual judgments are right and wrong and the way value judgments are right and wrong. In both cases, correctness is determined by what people in the relevant community think it is reasonable to believe. And the norms of reasonableness, as noted earlier, have no special status; they too can vary between cultures and be revised over time.

So the way I read Rorty, he'd resist your suggestion that science and morality are fundamentally different. He certainly denies many times that there is any distinctive procedure that constitutes "the scientific method". He also denies that there is anything special about "the logic of moral argumentation." He argues that we use pretty much the same means of persuasion - appeal to evidence, pointing out inconsistencies, demonstrations of predictive power, etc. - across the board, in all spheres where we engage in conversation.

(This is one place, incidentally, where I think he may overstate his case. I think that in some areas specific forms of justification/refutation are permitted that are not allowed in other areas. E.g. theologians interpreting the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran, might allow certain moves not permitted in a scientific community. Scientists can say, "Newton got it wrong on that point" in a way that theologians can't say, "Yeah, well, St. Paul messed up in his letter to the Corinthians.")

So I would say that Rorty does offer a form of relativism - he doesn't like this label, of course - that is essentially the same in all areas of culture: science, morality, politics, the arts. Everywhere, we try to make judgments that are reasonable according to accepted but revisable standards of justification.

Where what is in dispute is some "fact" the underlying pragmatic criteria by which we evaluate our claims is not very obvious. It takes a pragmatist philosopher to highlight them. Where we are debating political proposals, measures to deal with environmental crises, and so on, our pragmatism is obvious. We want to embrace ideas that will bring about a world in which more people live healthier, happier, richer lives than is the case now.

You'd expect anyone with Rorty's generally progressive, left-leaning political views to be sympathetic to environmentalism. However, he is a humanist through and through. From his point of view, the value of the natural world lies primarily in the opportunities it offers for human flourishing and in the delight it affords us. Perhaps he'd grant some value to the pleasures enjoyed by other sentient species. But it would go against his general approach to think of the non-human world as having its own intrinsic value.

So if we impose an obligation on ourselves to preserve the natural environment, this is done for the sake of ourselves and our descendants.


RLM: I'd like to pose one final question about Rorty and poetry. In "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," Rorty describes Proust's novels as "optional, orchidaceous extras." From this assessment, we might expect Rorty to dismiss poetry as unlikely to effect much good in human life. However, in his posthumously published essay “The Fire of Life” in Poetry Magazine, Rorty concludes with the beautiful passage

"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts--just as I would have if I had made more close friends."

Where does this place poetry in the Trotsky-vs.-wild-orchids division? Or does it stand outside this dichotomy?
EGW: In the last twenty years of his life, Rorty seems to have been increasingly drawn towards literature. This is very noticeable in Contingency, solidarity and irony, where he writes about Orwell, Dickens, Nabakov and Proust among others. (Incidentally, this was his favourite among his own works, and is most definitely my favourite: I especially like the second chapter which is an extended meditation on some lines by Phillip Larkin.)

This shift in is orientation interests me partly because I find myself following the same path. I think it is prompted (in both his case and mine) by a deepening skepticism toward the idea that philosophy is, can be, or should be, like science. Scientists solve well-defined problems on the basis of agreed upon assumptions and following an agreed-upon methodology. But philosophy, to say it again, is a culture's attempt "to hold its time in thought." So it's a much messier business - more like literature than science.

(This, incidentally, is one way of conceiving of the analytic-continental split in philosophy. Analytics think philosophy should be like science; continentals see it as closer to literature - perhaps as a genre of literature.)

When Rorty talks about "poetry" he's using the term in a very broad way, the way that people like Kierkegaard and Shelley use it. "Poetry" in this sense, refers to the fruits of the imagination, especially (but not only) the literary fruits, as opposed to the fruits of reason. (Obviously, the imagination-reason distinction doesn't have to sharp or rigid.)

According to a long-standing tradition, the sharp and shiny tool that we use to criticize our current ways of thinking and doing things is reason. People like Socrates and Descartes are held up as supreme practitioners of the art of rational criticism. But progress doesn't just require critique. We also have to start thinking of alternatives to our current arrangements. We have to think of how things might be if we tried this, or this, or this. And to stretch our thinking in this way requires imagination.

Although I can't recall any place where he refers to Uncle Tom's Cabin, I suspect the example it offers of how imagination may be more important than reason as a force for progress may have influenced Rorty. Stowe's novel had a great impact because people who read it had their imaginations stretched; they came to feel imaginative sympathy with slaves. This sort of sympathy arguably played a greater role in bringing about the abolition of slavery than any a clinical deduction of rights from the constitution.

In Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Rorty describes progress using the metaphor of an expanding circle. By enlarging our capacities, our sympathies, our understanding, we make our lives richer and we establish more satisfying relationships with our fellow human beings and perhaps also with other species and the rest of nature. This idea, like so much of his thought, bears traces of Hegel - something you pointed out earlier. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes how through the course of human history, Spirit comes to feel more at home in the world, overcoming various forms of alienation. This overcoming is less a matter of logical refutation; more a matter of recognizing a way of thinking to be outmoded - to have moved from being liberating to being a fetter on further progress. By means of this process, Spirit enriches itself and becomes more self-conscious.

This seems to be pretty much Rorty's way of thinking about progress, both intellectual and political. And he thinks of Hegel's Phenomenology as a great imaginative achievement - a sort of philosophical novel or epic poem.

If Rorty's ideas prevail, then perhaps the ancient tension between philosophy and poetry - first described by Plato - will gradually be reduced, as will oppression, injustice, inequality, violence and environmental degradation. Even analytic and continental philosophers will come together and embrace and laugh and cry over their past misunderstandings of each other. Let's hope so!

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