Reading the wild

Perhaps the prototype of all the reading humans do is tracking.

Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning how to read. In fact, it is learning how to read. Following an animal’s trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but more important, it brings you closer to it in perception.… The more intimate we become with other lives, the more aware we are of how those lives connect with and affect our own. There may be only a few obvious connections at first – two animals in the same woods, hearing the same sounds, smelling the same smells – but as we track the animal farther, we find that its trail is our own trail. As it moves, it affects its surroundings. What changes the animal changes its environment, and thus changes us. There is no separation; its fate is our fate. We are tracking ourselves in a sense.

— Paul Rezendes (1999, 15)

You can read the signs. You’ve been on this road before.

— Laurie Anderson, United States

Was it ystwith wyst or Lukan Yokan or where the hand of man has never set foot?

The Restored Finnegans Wake, 159

Nature’s own guidance system must encompass yours and mine. We assume that there is such a universal guidance system because we read the signs of regularities in nature. Science is the attempt to formulate the rules governing the processes we observe. As long as these formulae serve to guide our actions appropriately (that is, to the extent that they enable us to take a next step on the path), we continue to use them. Yet in our moments of waking we know there is always more to discover. Carlos Castaneda (or his ‘Toltec’ mentors) encapsulated this in the set of precepts called ‘the rule of stalkers,’ which is necessary for the ‘warrior’s’ life but also ‘applies to everyone’:

The first precept of the rule is that everything that surrounds us is an unfathomable mystery.

The second precept of the rule is that we must try to unravel these mysteries, but without ever hoping to accomplish this.

The third, that a warrior, aware of the unfathomable mystery that surrounds him, and aware of his duty to try to unravel it, takes his rightful place among mysteries and regards himself as one. Consequently, for a warrior there is no end to the mystery of being, whether being means being a pebble, or an ant, or oneself. That is a warrior’s humbleness.

— Castaneda (1981, 281)

A similar spirit pervades the four bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism, though here compassion comes to the foreground:

Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
The Dharma teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

— Cook (1978, 32)

What is called arousing the thought of enlightenment is the uttering of the vow to emancipate all living beings even while you yourself are not yet emancipated. When one arouses this thought, no matter how humble in appearance one is, one then becomes the guide of all beings.

— Dogen (Cook 1978, 43)


An American who thinks you are conceited might tell you that you’re ‘too big for your britches.’ Ecologically speaking, the trouble with the human race is that it’s too big for its niches. Our niche is our ‘house’ (Greek oikos, source of both economy and ecology).

‘It is estimated that to support our present Earth population at the level enjoyed in North America would require two or three planets’ (Berry 1999, 114). The irony is that the ‘level enjoyed in North America’ is not really enjoyed – like any addiction, it simply perpetuates its own craving. Actual enjoyment comes only with mindful experience, with the cessation of craving.

The cure for that addiction lies in the recognition of ‘big mind,’ as Shunryu Suzuki called it, or ‘expanding mind outwards’ as Bateson did.

Freudian psychology expanded the concept of mind inwards to include the whole communication system within the body – the autonomic, the habitual, and the vast range of unconscious process. What I am saying expands mind outwards. And both of these changes reduce the scope of the conscious self. A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part – if you will – of God.

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks and conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.

— Bateson (1972, 461)

The unconscious, then, is not a closet full of skeletons in the private house of the individual mind; it is not even, finally, a cave full of dreams and ghosts in which, like Plato’s prisoners, most of us spend most of our lives …

The unconscious is rather that immortal sea which brought us hither; intimations of which are given in moments of ‘oceanic feeling’; one sea of energy or instinct; embracing all mankind, without distinctions of race, language, or culture; and embracing all the generations of Adam, past, present, and future, in one phylogenetic heritage; in one mystical or symbolical body.

— N.O. Brown (1966, 88-9)

We must recognize that the only effective program available as our primary guide toward a viable human mode of being is the program offered by the Earth itself.

— Thomas Berry (1999, 71)

No special set of teachings will save the world. The world is only saved by continuous learning, which in the latter day redeems the former teachings. The savings and the learnings do not accumulate but recycle themselves.

Sinister dexterity

Chapter 3 of Turning Signs remarks that humans are capable of a truly sinister dexterity. The joke here is in the etymology of the last two words. Sinister and dexter are the Latin words for left and right respectively. Since the right hand is the more skillful for 90% of humans, dexterity came to mean skill in English. Sinister on the other hand came to mean evil, presumably because we can use good for skillful, as in ‘a good craftsman.’ However the two words lost their symmetry as they diverged in meaning. On the dexter side, we ended up with the paradoxical term ambidextrous, which ‘literally’ means having two right hands – but consider that if someone actually had two hands which were not mirror images of each other, we would surely find it sinister.


Antonio Damasio (1999, 230-33) elucidates the intimate connection between conscience and consciousness. He points out that whereas English and German have separate words for them, the Romance languages typically use the same word for both, so that one relies on context to determine which meaning is intended. In order to ‘do the right thing,’ one must in the first place be conscious in a distinctively human sense, which Damasio calls extended consciousness. This endows us with a range of abilities not shared with other animals.

Among this remarkable collection of abilities allowed by extended consciousness, two in particular deserve to be highlighted: first, the ability to rise above the dictates of advantage and disadvantage imposed by survival-related dispositions and, second, the critical detection of discords that leads to a search for truth and a desire to build norms and ideals for behavior and for the analyses of facts. These two abilities are not only my best candidates for the pinnacle of human distinctiveness, but they are also those which permit the truly human function that is so perfectly captured by the single word conscience.

— Damasio (1999, 230)

The concept of conscientia is the original root concept from which all later terminologies in Roman languages and in English have developed. It is derived from cum (‘with,’ ‘together’) and scire (‘knowing’) and in classical antiquity, as well as in scholastic philosophy, predominantly referred to moral conscience or a common knowledge of a group of persons, again most commonly of moral facts. It is only since the seventeenth century that the interpretation of conscientia as a higher-order knowledge of mental states begins to dominate. Because cum can also have a purely emphatic function, conscientia also frequently just means to know something with great certainty. What the major Greek precursor concept of συνειδήσις shares with conscientia is the idea of moral conscience.

— Metzinger (2003, 171n)

The Greek συνειδήσις, like Latin conscientia, compounds a verb meaning ‘to know’ with a prefix meaning ‘together with.’ The shorter word σύνεσις, literally ‘a coming together,’ could also mean ‘conscience’ as well as ‘sagacity’ (LS). In classical Greek the verbal form of suneidesis was sometimes used with a reflexive pronoun, so a literal translation would say ‘I know with myself’ (that some action is good or bad). This highlights the intimate connection with self-consciousness (often called simply ‘consciousness’ in English).

Julian Jaynes (1976) developed a hypothesis that the Greeks of classical times were the first humans to be conscious – that is, the first to recognize that the guiding ‘voices’ which they heard were coming from themselves. According to Jaynes, humans before this point hallucinated these voices coming from distant or departed authority figures, or from statues of them, when in fact they were generated by the right hemisphere of the brain; thus they had ‘bicameral minds,’ divided between thoughts or ‘voices’ which they took to be their own and voices which they heard as coming from Others. This way of seeing (or rather hearing) things broke down when the Greeks internalized the voice of conscience, and the result was what we now call ‘consciousness.’

According to Damasio,

the nonconscious neural signaling of an individual organism begets the proto-self which permits core self and core consciousness, which allow for an autobiographical self, which permits extended consciousness. At the end of the chain, extended consciousness permits conscience.

— Damasio (1999, 230)

Damasio remarks that humanity has always been concerned with conscience, but the ‘preoccupation with what we call consciousness is recent – three and a half centuries perhaps – and has only come to the fore late in the twentieth century’ (231). Science is thus working its way from the basic level (conscience) back toward the beginning of this ‘chain’ of developments. For a closely related study focussing on the evolution of morality, see Goodenough and Deacon (2003).

Systemic governance

Does a dictionary “govern” the meanings of words?

Its “authority” depends not on the ability of its authors to govern the community of speakers of the language, or to prescribe rules of word usage, but on their ability to accurately describe the standard usage prevailing in that community. In other words, the compilers ‘speak for’ the community as a whole, not so much to guide it as to describe the verbal aspect of its guidance system. Part of this task, however, is to recognize that some usage habits are better than others for the coherence of the guidance system and for its communicative function. Since any instance of such recognition can only be based on the cumulative experience of one language user, and is as fallible as any judgment, the ‘experts‘ may disagree on which observable usages are standard and which are not.

The authors of a dictionary, by making implicit communal standards explicit, and by declaring some actual usage habits to be nonstandard (‘slang,’ ‘archaic,’ ‘rare’ etc.), are in effect prescribing usage habits for those who accept their descriptive authority. But that authority is based on the participation of the authors in the linguistic life of the whole community, not on their taking up a privileged position above it. If the dictionary is influential, the language tends to become what the authors describe – just as any cybernetic system (one self-governed by recursive or ‘feedback’ processes) develops self-control. Self-control (as opposed to remote control) is characteristic of living, semiotic and mental systems. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, ‘no part of such an internally interactive system can have unilateral control over the remainder or over any other part.’

Even in very simple self-corrective systems, this holistic character is evident. In the steam engine with a “governor,” the very word “governor” is a misnomer if it is taken to mean that this part of the system has unilateral control. The governor is, essentially, a sense organ or transducer which receives a transform of the difference between the actual running speed of the engine and some ideal or preferred speed. This sense organ transforms these differences into differences in some efferent message, for example, to fuel supply or to a brake. The behavior of the governor is determined, in other words, by the behavior of the other parts of the system, and indirectly by its behavior at a previous time.

The holistic and mental character of the system is most clearly demonstrated by this last fact, that the behavior of the governor (and, indeed, of every part of the causal circuit) is partially determined by its own previous behavior. Message material (i.e., successive transforms of difference) must pass around the total circuit, and the time required for the message material to return to the place from which it started is a basic characteristic of the total system. This behavior of the governor (or any other part of the circuit) is thus in some degree determined not only by its immediate past, but by what it did at a time which precedes the present by the interval necessary for the message to complete the circuit. Thus there is a sort of determinative memory in even the simplest cybernetic circuit.

The stability of the system (i.e. whether it will act self-correctively or oscillate or go into runaway) depends upon the relation between the operational product of all the transformations of difference around the circuit and upon this characteristic time. The “governor” has no control over these factors. Even a human governor in a social system is bound by the same limitations. He is controlled by information from the system and must adapt his own actions to its time characteristics and to the effects of his own past action.

Thus, in no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.

— Gregory Bateson (1972, 315-16, his emphasis)

A beehive, for instance, is not ruled by a central authority; to imagine how it works, ‘a better image is the orderly growth of an individual body, brought about by communication between neighbouring cells. Work in the colony is organized by local communication between individuals.… global order can result from local rules’ (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1999, 133). Such ‘local rules’ are legisigns, general enough to govern a recurring series of interactions, and ‘local’ in the sense that their form is determined by the ‘global order’ which is the whole system’s self-control. Similarly, social order results from the implicit ‘rules’ governing local interactions among people, whether they have been legislated or not.

Self-control and the middle voice

Being a manipulative species, humans have mixed some notions of domination into the concept of control.

Heraclitus was quoted as writing, around 600 B.C., that

The wise is one, knowing the plan by which it steers all things through all.
ἓν τὸ σοφόν· ἐπίστασθαι γνώμην ὅκη κυϐερνῆσαι πάντα διὰ πάντων.

Kahn 1979, 54

The ‘knowing’ verb, ἐπίστασθαι, usually connotes mastery (literally ‘standing over’). But the exact form of the ‘steering’ verb κυϐερνῆσαι being uncertain (see Kahn 1979, 170), we might also translate ‘the thought by which all things steer themselves through all things.’ ‘Steer themselves’ would translate κυβερνᾶται, one of the most plausible readings (according to Kahn): being in the Greek middle voice, neither active nor passive, this reading is compatible with the concepts of autopoiesis, self-organization and enaction.

Various forms of the verb κυβερνάω (Greek root of the English govern) were commonly used in a ‘standard metaphor of cosmic steering’ (Kahn 1979, 272) even before Heraclitus. In the mid-20th century, the same Greek word was used to name the new field of cybernetics.

If Heraclitus did use the middle voice, this would open up a curious connection with another discipline developing in the early 20th century, generally called phenomenology. According to Henry Corbin:

The etymological meaning of the word ‘phenomenon,’ taken in the precise technical sense of phenomenology, is very much the original meaning of the Greek word phainomenon. This is the present participle of a verb in the middle voice; i.e., the subject is manifesting, appearing, and being shown to itself and for itself. It is the middle, the medium, the medial voice of the verb.

— Corbin 1948 (1998, 24)

There could be a more-than-verbal connection between the Greek middle voice and the semiotic concept of mediation (Peirce’s Thirdness), or the ‘middle way’ of Nagarjuna and Mahayana Buddhism. But English and its close relatives among languages lack a middle voice, so that our notion of ‘appearing’ tends to split into ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ while ‘control’ tends to split into a controller (active) and a controlled (passive). Cybernetics was defined by Norbert Wiener as ‘the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine’ (Ashby 1956, 1). Some outsiders suspected that it was more about control of the animal (and human) by mechanical means, which was not the intention of the early cyberneticists.

Three centuries earlier, Descartes had used the same nautical metaphor, but without the sense that the living body steers itself; for him the body was merely a passive mechanism, and guidance was done by a separate mind or soul, the spiritual captain of the physical ship. This particular dualism has infected our thinking ever since. Intentionally or not, the word control tends to conjure up the dualistic vision of a controlling agency – captain, director, governor, dictator, boss – and a relatively passive subject (subject in the political sense of one who is governed). Once institutionalized, this becomes a domination system (Borg 2001) rather than a self-guidance system. Jean-Pierre Dupuy criticizes ‘the unfortunate choice of the very name “cybernetics”’ as ‘implying a theory of command, governance, and mastery’ (Petitot et al. 1999, 558). We can avoid some of these misconceptions by using the word guidance rather than control because it seems less suggestive of domination.

Even the notion of self-control may seem to split the whole self into two parts, with one imagined as controlling the other – although in Peirce’s usage, the continuity of semiosis involved in self-control is never in doubt.

Setting aside word choice, though, it seems that cybernetics (at least in its early days) was working with the same central ideas of closure and circularity that later found their way into autopoiesis theory and into this book.

Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control – systems that are ‘information-tight’ (Ashby 1956, 4).

– or to put it another way, systems that are self-informed, ‘autonomous agents’ who are not directly controlled by external agencies.

Introducing an article about her father (Gregory Bateson) and mother (Margaret Mead), Mary Catherine Bateson provides this concise retrospective view of cybernetics:

Both my parents played important roles roles in the early development of cybernetics, participating for over a decade in the search for ways of thinking about the behavior of systems, their formal similarities and interactions, that could connect biology and the social sciences and inform various kinds of engineering and design … The way an organism adjusts to circumstances has similarities to the way a ‘smart’ missile stays on course, so by the time of my parents’ deaths the term had largely been usurped by engineering and computer science and had become associated in popular usage with mechanical, inhuman constructions.

— M.C. Bateson (2004, 44)

Polanyi (1962) was already associating the term with such mechanistic models. Likewise Robert Rosen (2000, Chapter 19) lumps cybernetics with information theory, ‘bionics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ as developments of the organism-as-machine metaphor which goes back to Descartes. According to Rosen, ‘mechanical constructions’ were of the essence of these disciplines right from the beginning, because they never treated systems as complex in Rosen’s sense of the word. They were all simple because they were mechanical, whereas for Rosen ‘organism and machine are different in kind’ (2000, 295).

The difference between Rosen’s perspective and Bateson’s on this episode in history can serve to remind us that understanding what is meant by ‘complex’ in any given context is anything but simple. Rosen himself says that his own usage of the term ‘is completely different from that employed heretofore. This is unfortunate, but there were no other terms that could be used. In von Neumann’s terminology, every system is simple in my sense; what he calls complex I would merely call complicated’ (2000, 292). It was von Neumann who developed methods of quantifying ‘complexity,’ says Rosen (2000, 289), ‘and complexity in this sense became an explanatory principle for the characteristics of life’ – all of which kept ‘life’ firmly within the mechanical domain. But Rosen (2000, 303) also observes that a system controlling the system’s response to its environment amounts to a model of the environment – which brings us back to the meaning cycle.

These changing conceptions of ‘control’ and ‘complexity’ have taken yet another turn with the advent of infodynamics, linking information and thermodynamics. Salthe defines infodynamics as

the science of information changes in systems, especially in systems that are informed primarily from within. A combination of nonequilibrium thermodynamics and information theory based on the idea that, just as energy transformations lead to an increase in entropy, so do they, at least when viewed from within a system, lead to increases in information.

— Salthe (1993, 315)

The term (first used by David Depew and Bruce Weber in the late 1980s) reflects the twin sources of the concept. It differs from Shannon’s original information theory by focusing on nonequilibrium thermodynamics, a field not yet developed in Shannon’s time. While it remains a mathematical model, the ‘view from within’ or ‘internalist perspective’ embodied in infodynamics (Salthe 1993, 2004) aims to model dimensions of meaning not reflected in Shannon’s information theory.

On control

This is an era of unprecedented human impact on the environment. You could say, as do Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1992, 4), that ‘the human has taken over such extensive control of the life systems of the Earth that the future will be dependent on human decision to an extent never dreamed of in previous times.’ But this is a strange kind of ‘control’: we have repeatedly failed to anticipate the real consequences of our collective activity. Maybe the delusion of control, or the lust for it, is the whole problem; maybe control of one’s environment, in the absence of self-control, is a self-contradictory concept.

As individuals, we all feel the need for some degree of control. It is a component of ‘flow,’ and works as a ‘coping’ mechanism even after real control has ceased to exist. This is part of our biological heritage; a 2006 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health identified a ‘circuitry of resilience’ in the rat brain which functions so that ‘experiencing control over a stressor immunizes a rat from developing a depression-like syndrome when it later encounters stressors that it can’t control,’ according to the NIMH news release.

In any case, we have to live with the consequences of our decisions, and with the unpredictability of those consequences, and with the fact that – due to circumstances beyond our control – we have no choice but to make choices.

Fast fools

Doomsday ClockUnlike the genetic type of text, the external symbolic type can be reproduced, modified and shared almost at will. The symbolic species can thus develop external guidance systems. Such a system amounts to a common heritage which remains external to the individuals guided by it. Each of them can read and internalize its symbolic ‘maps,’ incorporating them as habits and expressing them in real time as actual behavior. If the maps or texts fall out of synch with current experience, they can be changed promptly and purposefully – no more waiting for natural selection to guide the development of the guidance system. In this way cultural evolution makes a jump to warp speed, so to speak, compared to its biological predecessor.

Evolution has speeded itself up before, for instance with the advent of sexual reproduction. This innovation enlarged the space for variation of the genetic code: now each new individual represented a remix of the genotype, consisting of parts drawn from two genetic texts. Space for variation (or polyversity) is a prerequisite for evolution to be guided by selection; the advent of cultural variation, mediated by symbolic coding, entails a leap into hyperspace. But it also entails the challenge of learning to navigate this greatly expanded space.

Navigation, as before, is guided from within the organic system, so an external guidance system has to be partially internalized in order to do its job. To inhabit a cultural universe, or to adapt one’s habits to it, takes time. As the technology of producing, transferring and retrieving texts improves, they proliferate far faster than they can be incorporated into our behavior. No wonder we humans are so much more bewildered than our wild cousins, who aren’t distracted by symbolic media or inundated by floods of information. But they do suffer, to the point of extinction, from the effects of human bewilderment and our proliferation.

We are bewildered because we are still wild at the biological core of our being, and the core process of all learning – including evolution itself – works by trial and error. Cultural evolution through the proliferation of external guidance systems has enormously amplified the possibilities of trial, the polyversity of success, and the effects of error. The question now is whether we can learn enough from our trials to avoid being overtaken by the consequences of our errors.

One early attempt to map the urgency of this complex situation onto a simple graphic device was the Doomsday Clock, introduced by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947. On this clock, ‘midnight’ stood for a nuclear holocaust, and the imminence of the danger of such a catastrophe was represented by the position of the minute hand. Starting at 7 minutes to midnight, the Clock (i.e. the minute hand) was moved forward or back every few years to indicate changes in the global situation, as seen by conscientious members of the scientific community. In January 2007 a new dimension was added: the clock was moved up to 5 minutes to midnight (closer to ‘Doomsday’ than it had been since 1988), taking into account this time the threat of a gradual global-warming holocaust along with renewed dangers of a sudden nuclear catastrophe. The irony in all this is that the faculty which enables us to reduce such a complex situation to a simple symbol is the same faculty which enables us to make such a mess of the situation in the first place. By learning to map the implicit intricacy of life onto simple explicit symbols, we set the stage for artificial intervention into complex natural processes. Now we are learning how lethal such intervention can be.

How to design a guidance system

The genome is the body’s internal instruction manual for becoming what it needs to be in order to pass on the instructions. The subject of this instructional text has been ‘designed’ by the billion-year dialogue between the organism’s ancestors and their changing circumstances. But developmental and evolutionary processes are unlike expert human designers in one crucial respect: they do not look for short cuts that would reach the intended product without going through the infinitely patient dialogue process. Rather than specifying the structure of their devices to suit their intended function, they incorporate a measure of vagueness and indeterminacy, so that the intentions develop along with the organism, the ends along with the means. If the purpose (or ‘meaning’) of a life were already fully determined before it begins, nothing new could happen among the living, except maybe novel styles of failure.

Where to?

Before the beginning of guidance, you are here now, there is nowhere else. Guidance begins when a difference appears between where you are and where you are heading: then you have forward and backward, front and back, start and finish. Guidance develops as paths proliferate.

So there you are, trying to imagine a story in which you might be a character who makes a difference – or at least, even if you’re only an extra, a story with a plot, one that goes somewhere.