The real economy

Food, shelter, clothing, fuels, minerals, forests, fisheries, land, buildings, art, music and information are real wealth. Money by itself is not. Money is circulated among people who use it to buy real wealth.

— Odum and Odum (2001, 91)

Unfortunately, almost everything we hear about “the economy” through the media reflects an obsession with “growth,” as defined by increasing circulation of money. Meanwhile the planet continues to grow more impoverished.

What does nature mean?

Peirce gave several accounts of the ‘triad of interpretants’ and did not always use the same terminology for them. One of the simplest appears in a 1909 letter to Lady Welby, where he compares the Immediate, Dynamical and Final interpretants with three corresponding concepts in her ‘Significs.’ The main difference arises from the fact that Welby is mainly concerned with the meanings expressed in language, while Peirce is more broadly concerned with signs in general, including ‘natural signs’ which are not intended to mean anything.

My Interpretant with its three kinds is supposed by me to be something essentially attaching to anything that acts as a Sign. Now natural Signs and symptoms have no utterer; and consequently have no Meaning, if Meaning be defined as the intention of the utterer. I do not allow myself to speak of the “purposes of the Almighty,” since whatever He might desire is done. Intention seems to me, though I may be mistaken, an interval of time between the desire and the laying of the train by which the desire is to be brought about. But it seems to me that Desire can only belong to a finite creature.
Your ideas of Sense, Meaning, and Signification seem to me to have been obtained through a prodigious sensitiveness of Perception that I cannot rival, while my three grades of Interpretant were worked out by reasoning from the definition of a Sign what sort of thing ought to be noticeable and then searching for its appearance. My Immediate Interpretant is implied in the fact that each Sign must have its own peculiar Interpretability before it gets any Interpreter. My Dynamical Interpretant is that which is experienced in each act of Interpretation and is different in each from that of any other; and the Final lnterpretant is the one Interpretative result to which every Interpreter is destined to come if the Sign is sufficiently considered. The Immediate Interpretant is an abstraction consisting in a Possibility. The Dynamical Interpretant is a single actual event. The Final Interpretant is that toward which the actual tends.

SS 111 (1909 March 14)

This clarifies the difference between the “purposes of the Almighty” and ‘that toward which the actual tends’: the tendencies of nature are real but not intentional. Creation is not meant to mean anything.


We are waves whose stillness is non-being.
We are alive because of this, that we have no rest.

— Abu-Talib Kalim (Shah 1968, 253)

Consciousness is a dis-ease of the mind. It rides upon the unconscious like foam upon the waves, like words upon meaning.

Spreading out

Evolution is an irreversible process, a process of increasing diversification and distribution. Only in this sense does evolution exhibit a consistent direction. Like entropy, it is a process of spreading out to whatever possibilities are unfilled and within reach of a little more variation.

— Deacon 1997, 29

The consciousness con

The conscious aspect of any thought is always embedded in a much larger and dominant unconscious aspect, upon which it depends for its existence and its meaning. Conscious aspects of thought are simple, relative to the complexity and intricacy of unconscious aspects.

Turner (1991, 39)

Most of us are in the habit of thinking that consciousness and psychic life are the same thing and otherwise greatly to overrate the functions of consciousness.

The misrule of too many rules

Donna Williams (1992), in her remarkable account of her own autistic life, highlights her inability to generalize, to recognize types of situation so that learned responses to one situation can be transferred to another. Being highly intelligent, she could quickly learn the rules of conduct in a given milieu, especially when they were explained to her, but she couldn’t relate them to a different milieu:

My behavior puzzled others, but theirs puzzled me, too. It was not so much that I had no regard for their rules as that I couldn’t keep up with the many rules for each specific situation. I could put things into categories, but this type of generalizing was very hard to grasp.

Categorizing things was not a problem for her – autistics can deal very well, and often become obsessed, with inanimate objects, which they can count on not to startle them – but categorizing rules is far more difficult for hypersensitive people who are chronically overstimulated. Temple Grandin (1996) gives a similar impression of what it’s like to be autistic.

But something like this experience happens to anyone whose guidance system loses its integrity and becomes merely complicated, an ever-growing pile of miscellaneous precepts. “Learning the rules” then amounts to an accumulation of particular laws rather than a continuing modulation of the inner logos which makes sense of the world. The result of this information overload is an ever-spreading sense of anxiety. In the religious context, Isaiah 28:11-13 (RSV) describes it this way:

Nay, but by men of strange lips
and with an alien tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
to whom he has said,
This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose’;
yet they would not hear.
Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, and there a little;
that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

Natural selection and vulgar Darwinism

Natural selection operates at many levels simultaneously; see Depew and Weber 1995, Chapter 14, on the development of this view among biologists. Sober and Wilson (in Katz 2000, 259) summarize multi-level selection theory as follows:

a gene can evolve by increasing its fitness relative to other genes within the same individual, by increasing the fitness of the individual relative to other individuals within a group, or by increasing the fitness of the group, relative to other groups in the total population.

But at any of these levels, since the ‘other’ to which fitness is relative is co-evolving, competition is not necessarily required. What is essential to evolution is a nonlinear dynamic, a feedback process. This entails that the very act of adapting may change its own context as well as the ‘text’ (the specific transform). Besides, natural selection is not necessarily or exactly an adaptive process.

When adaptation is observed, it can be explained by the differential survival and reproduction of variant types being guided and biased by their differential efficiency or resistance to environmental stresses and dangers. But any cause of differential survival and reproduction, even when it has nothing to do with the struggle for existence, will result in some evolution, not just adaptive evolution.… What evolutionary geneticists and developmental biologists have been doing for the last sixty years is to accumulate a knowledge of a variety of forces that cause the frequency of variant types to change, and that do not fall under the rubric of adaptation by natural selection. These include, to name a few: random fixation of nonadaptive or even of anti-adaptive traits because of limitations of population size and the colonization of new areas by small numbers of founders; the acquisition of traits because the genes influencing them are dragged along on the same chromosome as some totally unrelated gene that is being selected; and developmental side effects of genes that have been selected for some quite different reason.

— Lewontin (2001, 56-7)

Lewontin (2001, 52) speaks of a ‘vulgar Darwinism’

which sees all aspects of the shape, function and behavior of all organisms as having been molded in exquisite detail by natural selection – the greater survival and reproduction of those organisms whose traits make them ‘adapted’ for the struggle for existence.… Evolutionary geneticists, on the other hand, … and most epistemologists take a more pluralistic view of the forces driving evolution.

Gerald Edelman (2004) attributes just such a ‘vulgar Darwinism’ to Alfred Wallace, contrasting this view with Darwin’s own:

Wallace, in fact, concluded that natural selection could not explain the origin of our higher intellectual and moral faculties. He claimed that savages and prehistoric humans had brains almost as large as those of Englishmen but, in adapting to an environment that did not require abstract thought, they had no use for such structures and therefore their brains could not have resulted from natural selection. Unlike Wallace, Darwin understood that such an adaptationist view, resting only on natural selection, was not cogent. He understood that properties and attributes not necessarily needed at one time could nevertheless be incorporated during the selection of other evolutionary traits. Moreover, he did not believe that mental faculties were independent of one another. As he explained in his book The Descent of Man, for example, the development of language might have contributed to the process of brain development.

— Edelman (2004, 2)

It would appear, then, that Darwin was not a ‘vulgar Darwinist,’ and in fact anticipated the co-evolutionary theory developed by Deacon in The Symbolic Species (1997).