8 Apr 2009

Wilder than Chaos: Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Ch.8, subsection 7

Paul Shepard

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Chapter VIII: Wildness and Wilderness

Subsection 7

Wilder than Chaos

We are wild. Our DNA makes us that way. This has made us hunters as well as gatherers. We are omnivores. But how should we deal with our carnivoracity? It developed genetically over the course of two million years. So too did cultural adaptations to it.
In our DNA is the wildness that proscribes the limits of a workable physiology as well as a competent culture. Having been generated for over two million years, our wildness requires the taking of life and the eating of flesh of animals as well as fruits and seeds. Life feeds by death-dealing (and death-receiving). The way "out" of the dilemma is into it, a way pioneered for us in the play of sacred trophism, the gamble of sacramental gastronomy, central myths of gifts and chance, the religious context of eating in which the rules are knowing the wild forms who are the game -- and being part of the game. You cannot sit out the game except at the cost of health. (146a, emphasis mine)
Wild things have their unique niche. They evolved adaptations to it.

World religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, have spread. As they move into new cultural territory, they replace indigenous nature-religions. Wherever they go
earth shrines, sacred forests, springs, and other places with their wild inhabitants have vanished, replaced often with temples or churches. These "new" architectural structures, often built over an earth shrine and incorporating some of the "old" building materials within them, are often recognizably specific to a certain religion, demonstrating the portability and cosmopolitan nature of that particular religion. (146bc)
But could there be a world religion with a different sort of philosophical basis? Can we create a spiritual sensibility that is universal, because no matter where it is, it worships the earth, but which also is uniquely fitting to the given bioregion?

Religion scorned nature for reminding us of our fall. Physical science has picked up such an attitude, although in a secular form. Physics tries to find logical order in the world. But fluxions have a wild logic all their own.
nature is so complex that when a correlative of wildness was seen in fluid dynamics, the dismayed physicists cried "Chaos!" The fashionable topic of Chaos represents modern science's consternation with its attempt to "tame" the world: its one-factor approach cannot predict in a world of irreducible variables. Where today's molecules of vapor may be tomorrow at noon no one can say, but not because of the disorder associated with the word "chaos." The attempt to analyze by reduction merely opens an endless series of scales, or "fractal" horizons. It turns out that the closer you look at the edges of things the more they mimic the incredible diversity apparent without magnification. (146-147, emphasis mine)
[Nature is not chaotic in the sense of disorder. Nor is it even theoretically possible to sort through all the complexity to make absolutely precise determinations. This is not because nature's complexity is so great that we will never have the mathematical and technological means to understand it all. The problem is that nature has an infinity of scales of complexity. There is not a fundamental determinism that is covered-over by so many variables that we will never arrive upon it. No, the "problem" (or rather the magic) of nature is that there are infinite layers of determination. Nature is "over-determined". There are an infinity of interrelated and hierarchically scaled-variables, so we can never get to its bottom or see it from above. Nature obeys an ordered determinism. But there is so much of it, infinitely much determinism, that the sum total of its workings is chance. Chaos theory also assumes a deterministic framework. But for such theorists, the sheer complexity makes things seemingly random. However from Shepard's perspective, there is no a fundamental layer of order, and the random is not "seeming." The determinism is real, and chance is real. But chance is real in the sense of virtual. Infinitely-scaled determinism is virtually chance. It is wild chance. Not mathematically or statistically random, but wild.]
The error is comparable to thinking that a circle is really made up of a very large number of tiny straight lines that would be obvious if only we could magnify it enough. Naturalists knew all along that the world was not chaotic. As genetic mapping inches forward, sometime in the next century the resonance of the two ecologies -- the biome and the genome -- will be perceived as the key isthmus in the pursuit of human health. The physical sciences will have finally discovered what people already knew, probably for fifty thousand years, that nature cannot be simplified by looking closer and that isolated components have very little value in understanding or prediction. By showing that complexity has limitless dimensions, "the new mathematics of fractal geometry has brought hard science in tune with the peculiarly modern feeling for untamed, uncivilized, undomesticated nature," says James Gleick. (147b)

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

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