Ways of seeing: Darwinism is losing its significance
What if one day you realized that some of the things you took as fundamental Truths of the World may not be exactly so? Or at least that these things you thought you knew may not be the only way of understanding things?
As a perpetual student, my formal studies continue well into my fifth decade of life. Recently, in class, we were asked to explore our cosmologies, worldviews, and ways of knowing. How do we understand the universe and world to be? How do we know this is true?
Quickly, I listed the Big Bang and Darwin’s theories of evolution. How do I know? Science, of course. These are Truths of the World that I hold as fact.
But why? As I held these things up and I considered my own rationalization, I realized I have no direct experience with these phenomena. They are things I have learned in school. (Full disclosure: I’m an educator. I have also taught these things.) These are things that science has told us are true or are at least the best current explanation for The Way Things Are.
I’ve been taught to believe that if science can’t prove it, it’s not true. Yes, this is a vast oversimplification, but it gets at the gist of it. In our culture, science is the way of knowing that holds the highest place as fact and truth. Yet even as we hold it up as the bastion of truth, science evolves and changes every day. Things we “knew” to be “true” yesterday become “disproven” as we discover more “evidence.”
My tension is not with science itself, but with my own belief that science holds the ultimate answers to the questions of the world, and that these answers are static and fixed in the cultural psyche.
Science is created by humans — humans who are beautiful and passionate and brilliant and who are also full of biases and prejudices and embedded in the moments in which they live. And so some of my Truths of the World might be misinterpretations. And this just might change everything.
Here’s what I mean:
Recently I came across “The Social Life of Forests” (in The New York Times Magazine’s Sunday Read, published Dec. 2, 2020). This story, written by Ferris Jabr, featured forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and her (scientific!) work understanding trees, forest communities, and the role of mycorrhizal fungi. You may have heard of the Wood Wide Web? If not, Google it. Essentially, these mycorrhizal fungi create networks of trees by connecting their roots underground and pass information and resources, such as carbon, between trees.
What’s astounding about Dr. Simard’s research is that it suggests that rather than Darwinian competition and survival of the fittest as the dominant “natural order of things,” these tree networks, these forest communities, might be showing us that altruism and socialism are also a “natural order of things.”
This stopped me in my tracks.
Remember how I told you that Darwin’s work made my top ways of knowing? As I reflect, it seems interesting to me that these ideas of the survival of the fittest and competition also feel baked into American culture, with our focus on “rugged individualism” and the idea of “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.” If you don’t succeed in America, it’s your own damn fault for not working hard enough. And, also, that the resources I have and the achievements I’ve earned are due solely to my (and my parents’) hard work (and not my white privilege). These are the dominant “truths of the world” where I live.
Actually, they are lies of white supremacy, told to keep the status quo in place. But damn, they sound good, don’t they? At least until you realize the cost of these fictions. And, aren’t these myths in line with these Darwinian worldviews? Isn’t Darwin’s body of work the evidence we cite when we perpetuate these myths?
This is why I was entranced by Jabr’s suggestion of how Darwin was greatly influenced by Thomas Malthus’ theories on population and resource competition, Adam Smith’s views on how free markets could tame individualism, and 19th-century capitalism. What if, just maybe, the lenses through which Darwin understood science were colored by the dogma of his time?
It’s really not that far-fetched, is it?
So when I learned that Simard’s theories of altruism in forest communities — the selfless sharing of resources among and between even different tree species — contradict, or at least complicate, Darwin’s theories of competition, I felt the ground shift. This isn’t to say that competition in natural systems doesn’t exist. It does. But what I am questioning is its dominance and status as the de facto order of things.
And the implications of that realization feel huge to me.
If the trees know and understand the value of supporting each other, the value of sharing what they have so that others have what they need too so that all can thrive, what does that teach us? About ourselves? What can we learn from the wisdom of nature? How might we reimagine our systems, our relationships, and our communities, so that they preference mutual support and reciprocity, rather than competition in a zero-sum game?
Right now we are in a moment where the injustices and inequities of the status quo are glaring and ugly. We are also in a moment of transition: the pandemic has brought humanity to our knees. As we rise, how will we return? This could be a moment when we choose to grow back better, together.
I’m not sure how to get there, but lately, I’ve been spending a lot more time with the trees, trying to listen to what they can teach me.
Emily Hoyler lives in the woods of Ripton with her husband, three children, a dog, a cat, 19 chickens, and assorted other wild things. She works as an educator, facilitator, and climate activist.
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