October 23, 2017

Letter to Ecotheology

A letter sent to the editor of Ecotheology, replying to a review of The Way: an ecological worldview.

First I must thank you for publishing a review of my book The Way: An Ecological Worldview (Ecotheology 3 (1998), pp. 92-93). This book has now come out in the UK (two editions), and the US (two editions), as well as in France, Germany, Portugal and Italy. It is due to come out in Japan and Spain during the course of this year. It gets very few reviews, one reason being that editors do not know who to send it to for review, as it covers a lot of ground, and as a result the subject matter does not fit into the compass of any accepted academic discipline.

I was delighted to see it reviewed in your excellent journal. However, I do not believe that your reviewer, Christopher Southgate, fully understood the thesis of my book. Perhaps that is my fault and I should have made it clearer. He certainly does not like the book. He accuses me of ‘Gaian absolutism’, and adds that for him this leaves ‘a nasty taste’. The reason is that I state that ‘to maintain the critical order of the ecosphere is the only true moral enterprise’.

However, if this statement leaves a nasty taste so would Aldo Leopold’s view of morality. For Leopold, ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’. What I try to show in my book is that this is what all tribal societies believed, as did early archaic societies that were still imbued with a chthnonic religion.

F.M. Cornford, the great classical scholar, tells us that for the ancient Greeks the order of nature was a moral order which was for them ‘an obvious unchallengeable truth’, and, indeed, ‘the most important truth about the world’. The great British anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown considered that this was true for tribal societies in general. ‘For primitive man’, he wrote, ‘the universe as a whole is a moral or social order, governed not by what we call natural law but rather by what we might call moral or ritual law’.

I try to show in my book that it was moral for all such peoples to adopt that behaviour pattern that they saw as serving to maintain the moral order of the cosmos. The word ‘cosmos’, one might note, originally meant ‘order’, and was contrasted with ‘chaos’. It was only by adopting such [a] behaviour pattern, and hence by following a corresponding path or way, that the cosmos could be prevented from reverting to the original chaos out of which it sprang.

The cosmos, one must also note, was always seen as encompassing human society, the natural world, and the world of the Gods. To maintain the order of human society for the ancient Greeks meant observing nomos, or law, to maintain the order of the natural world meant observing dike, which also meant justice and righteousness, while to maintain the order of the cosmos, that included the world of the gods and spirits, meant observing themis (a term which was also occasionally used synonymously with dike). What is important is that to follow themis (in the usual sense of the term) one also had to follow dike and nomos. As Pythagoras put it (according to Iamblichus), ‘Themis in the world of Zeus and dike in the world below, holds the same place and rank as nomos in the cities of men; so that he who does not justly perform his appointed duty may appear as a violator of the whole order of the universe’.

What was true among the Greeks was true in other archaic societies. In ancient China, for instance, the path or way that had to be followed to maintain the order of the cosmos, was called Tao. Jane Harrison, another great classical scholar, tells us that ‘Tao is like dike, the way of nature; and man’s whole moral effort is to bring himself into accordance with Tao’.

In Vedic India, the same can be said for the R’ta, which later became the dharma, which latter term in India today remains the closest approximation to what we refer to as religion.

In ancient Judaism, as Father Robert Murray tells us in his seminal book The Cosmic Covenant, the term used was mishpat, which also means justice or right judgment, and sedeq, which also means righteousness. To follow the sedeq enables one to achieve peace or shalom, which originally had the wider sense of harmony between earth and heaven and also cosmic or moral order or ‘the right functioning of all nature as God created it’. I tried to show in my book that the same concept existed in just about all tribal societies, even if they did not have a specific word for it.

My statement that for a natural system (such as a society, an ecosystem, or the ecosphere itself) to maintain its homeostasis means maintaining the critical order or stability of the ecosphere, also upset Christopher Southgate. Unfortunately it is only too true. There is no stable individual outside of a stable family, no stable family outside of a stable society, and no stable society in a devastated, and hence unstable, ecosystem, while all are condemned to a degraded and unstable existence if the ecosphere becomes unstable—as is happening today with global warming—a process that involves above all climatic and hence ecospheric destabilization.

I also point out in my book that natural systems at all levels of the Gaian or ecospheric hierarchy seek to maintain the order of the larger natural systems of which they are part. The ‘whole-maintaining character’ of natural systems at a biological level is accentuated by the highly respected biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of ‘General Systems Theory’. Von Bertalanffy cites the biologist Ungerer, who was so impressed by the ‘whole-maintaining’ character of life processes, that he decided to replace the biological consideration of purpose with that of wholeness. It is this whole-maintaining character of life processes that I refer to as homeotely, from the Greek ‘homeo’ (same) and ‘telos’ (goal). I had to coin this term because none existed—at least in the English language—to express what I regard as a key concept without which it is not possible to understand the behaviour of living things. Of course, this principle could not be less reconcilable with Neo-Darwinism and in particular with that very crude form of Neo-Darwinism promoted by Richard Dawkins. Of course, behaviour that follows the Way (R’ta, dharma, tao, themis, etc.) is homeotelic to the cosmos.

I do not apologize for my teleological approach—even though there is a taboo against it in the scientific world of today. But then I reject much of modern science—which is reductionistic, mechanistic and simply wrong on so many counts. As I show in my book, even though modern scientists reject teleology, they find it impossible to avoid making what are in effect teleological statements, and they cannot do otherwise and make sense. As Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize winning biologist, once said, ‘the attitude of biologists to teleology is like that of the pious towards the source of temptation which they are unsure of their ability to resist’.

Christopher Southgate also finds unacceptable my statement that the internalization of control increases stability. He clearly does not understand what I mean by this. External controls, as I seek to make clear in my book, are those applied on humans or other living things by external agencies. Internal controls are those that he applies on himself—largely because they are built into his cultural pattern. Thus population controls are built into the cultural pattern of all tribal societies. They take all sorts of different forms, but common to practically all of them is the taboo against sexual activity during certain periods, in particular while a woman is breast-feeding her baby—which can last three or even four years. The operation of this particular internal control assures women that will only have babies every four or five years never every year, as they still do in certain parts of the Third World, where with the destruction of local cultural patterns, these internal controls, are no longer operative. As family planning has proved to be very ineffective, the alternative to internal controls are mass sterilization campaigns and other such external controls, which I do not believe any of your readers will regard as more moral.

I have coined another term heterotely (from the Greek ‘hetero’, meaning different, and ‘telos’ meaning goal). This is the opposite to homeotely. It means aberrant behaviour—behaviour that serves to satisfy some of the requirements of the part without contributing to the maintenance of the whole. In other words, if I were to leave my wife for another woman, this might provide me with certain satisfactions, but it would not serve to maintain the stability and integrity of my family and hence of the larger social units of which the family is the essential building block. Such behaviour would therefore be heterotelic. One could also regard heterotelic behaviour as simply random behaviour—random to a particular purposive life process, or to the structure of the natural world, whose stability and integrity the process seeks to assure.

There will always be a certain measure of randomness in these things, but in an orderly process or structure randomness will be under control and reduced to a minimum—possibly an optimum level. This level of heterotely can be regarded as natural to Gaia or the ecosphere. However, as natural systems (such as families, communities and ecosystems) break down, as is occurring in the industrial mass society in which we live, heterotely or randomness increases—today even dramatically. I think it is reasonable to regard this increase heterotely as unnatural to Gaia or to the ecosphere. Among Archaic societies that were still imbued with a chthonic religion, there was a term for seriously heterotelic behaviour. Among the Greeks it was the ‘ou-themis’, for the Vedic Indians it was the ‘an R’ta’.

As Christopher Southgate notes, I see progress as a totally heterotelic enterprise. I fail to see why this should shock anyone—especially anyone who is likely to read your journal Ecotheology. After all, underlying the very notion of progress is the assumption that in creating the world, God did a lousy job, and that it is incumbent on man, equipped with all his science, his technology and his industry, to redesign it and refashion it in accordance with his far superior design. A more presumptuous, blasphemous and perfectly idiotic assumption is hard to imagine.

Having said all this I would still like to thank Christopher Southgate for taking the trouble to review my book and the editor for giving me the opportunity to defend its thesis in the pages of your excellent journal.

Edward Goldsmith

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