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Deep Ecology & Neuroscience

by Stephan Harding & Iain McGilchrist


Ground Zero for global warming: a massive iceberg calved from the Illulisat glacier in Greenland, amid fragments of arctic sea ice - courtesy

It’s interesting that ecology in the West began with the holistic understanding of great naturalists like Gilbert White. He used to watch swallows and write down exactly when they would appear and disappear. He looked at plants and butterflies and wrote down the timings of things—in a real natural history manner, with a sense of love and connection. Darwin, too, was a great natural historian and quite holistic in his approach.

Then in the 1920s the study of organisms and their relationship with the environment, which had been natural history, got taken over by an economic mentality in which organisms were no longer seen as whole beings with their own stories, that is their natural histories. They were seen as trying to maximize profit in some way. Cost-benefit analysis crept into ecology. Ecological community was replaced by eco-system.

There was a big debate at the time. One viewpoint saw an element of psyche in an ecological community. The other one refuted any psychic bonds, arguing that organisms interact solely in mechanistic ways, in an eco-system that can be mechanistically described. So we ended up with that view of ecology that was more like a branch of economics—where organisms maximize their benefit-cost relationship with things. In a study of hummingbirds, we find they only defend territories when there is enough sugar in the flowers, so that the energy they expend defending their territories is less than the energy they receive from the flowers. This is ecology as a branch of economics; ecology pushed to its mechanistic extreme.

Now, as happened in physics in the last century through quantum theory and relativity, we are seeing a resurgence of the holistic view in the sciences of the macroscopic—in biology and ecology. The most important manifestation of holistic science is Gaia theory, James Lovelock’s idea that the whole Earth is a great living being.

If we are going to resolve the ecological crisis, we have to consider whether the psyche extends beyond the human, as was implied in the old natural history, first by Aristotle and then by Plato, who wrote about the Earth having a soul, an intelligence, an agency. We need to recover this ancient view—that we are enmeshed in the great psyche of the world, the anima mundi. It is a prerequisite for a new integrated view of the Earth and the cosmos.

The concept of Gaia has the potential to integrate these views of our right and left brain hemispheres, and bring them into fruitful cooperation. Thus we can rediscover the Earth and cosmos are alive. We can rediscover the psyche of the cosmos. We can rediscover ourselves as part of an intelligent, creative universe, without any loss of intellectual excellence.

We now have the science of complexity, where there is a beautiful mathematics of simple agents interacting with each other according to simple local rules, yet generating fantastic emergent structures, for which none of those agents had any blueprint. The creativity emerges from the relationships, from the interactions.

I imagine an animistic Gaian psychology— complemented by excellent geo-chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology—that allows us to understand the Earth as a living system with our thinking minds. It leads us back to the pre-Socratic scholars who said there were gods in everything. They looked at magnets, saw the attraction and said, “There are gods here!” Now we can have a very sophisticated modern understanding of what those gods might be. We no longer need to be ashamed of speaking of gods in things, or intelligence in atoms, or subjectivity in the Universe. We have reached a unique point in the development of Western consciousness where it’s respectable to speak about subjectivity in Nature in a way that encompasses intuition, sensing, feeling, as well as scientific reason. I call it holistic science.

It was Goethe who showed how we can be rigorous with our intuitive faculties. There is a process that yields insights that are verifiable between different individuals. There is objectivity involved in such intuitive insights—they are not only subjective. They are subjective, but not merely personal. You can do a consensual check with different people to validate them. The key insight that I’ve come to is that there is this agency in the world which can come into us. The world is an objective psychological reality. The romantic poets said imagination is the nature of the world. It has an objective quality that can reach and inspire us. Without that connection our life becomes meaningless.

McGilchrist: Imagination is not the same thing as fantasy. It is a creative living force.

Harding: Yes, as the romantic poets were saying, it is the psyche of the world. A creative force to which we can be receptive.

McGilchrist: It is the opposite of fantasy, which is why Wordsworth got into trouble for staring at a rock until he saw what it really was, rather than fantasizing about all sorts of exotic things that people expected from a poet. Fantasy is a flight from truth; imagination is an engagement with it.

Harding: It’s possible to see what a rock really is, and there is no end of depth to that objective reality. I think of imagination as a kind of imprinting, as if the world imagines itself into us. It’s not us imagining the world. We become more open to the world and it imprints itself on us. As you look at a plant with Goethe’s method, it “coins itself into your thinking.” The agency is the world itself. That is the critical step we have been missing in the West. We cling to the notion that it is all “dead stuff” upon which we impinge our view. Similarly, recycling material we still think of as dead stuff is not going to help us. When I was trained as a scientist we had a metaphor that was never questioned—the world was a machine. It’s only recently that we’ve realized that we have this unconscious metaphor at all. For me the most liberating thing has been to realize I’ve been in the spell of a metaphor.

McGilchrist: The metaphors used to be organic. We used to describe any system we looked at in terms of a tree, a family, a body or a river, for example. Only recently has the machine become the primary metaphor—and that’s clear evidence of the left hemisphere’s take on things as being primary in our culture now. People are just not aware of the assumptions they make. If you make them aware that these are not rational or necessary assumptions, you free up the whole picture. There is plenty of evidence that people are not happy with the way the world is now.

Now if we ask why we end up in this fix of being dominated by the left hemisphere, there are answers at a number of levels. At the purely biological level there are some interesting indicators that the left hemisphere is more aggressive. For instance, in the corpus callosum, the left hemisphere is better able to inhibit the right hemisphere than the right is to inhibit the left. In effect, the left hemisphere appears “better” at things by inhibiting the right.

Actually, when the left hemisphere is knocked out, eg. by a stroke, the right hemisphere can accomplish almost everything the left hemisphere can, just as well. So there is an intrinsic competitive stance to the left hemisphere. The emissary (left hemisphere) can’t see the point of the master (right hemisphere). Yet the master can see the point of the emissary. The right hemisphere has an inclusive stance, the left has a competitive stance. I think that there are a number of factors that explain why a competition ends up being won by the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere makes you powerful. It is the acquisitive hemisphere, enabling you to grab more stuff and out-do the other guy. This is basically seductive and successful in reproductive terms.

Secondly, it uses a very simple model. The simpler the model the more likely it is to gain credibility. In a mass age, a simple message is very easy to convey. It cuts out all complexity and contradictions, because that’s the way it is set up to function. The left hemisphere is the Berlusconi of the brain! It controls the media. It’s the one that does the talking. It’s the one that constructs the argument. So it’s money for old rope to put its own point of view. It’s actually quite difficult for it to articulate the other point of view.

Finally, I suppose what we’ve done since the Industrial Revolution in particular—and it seems to have happened also at the end of the Roman Empire--is that we’ve constructed a world around us that actually looks like the left-hemisphere’s world. The left hemisphere does the manipulating of the world. Eventually it’s going to manipulate the world more and more into its own image. Once it has accomplished that, it is getting constant reinforcement through the dialogue between brain and environment. When brain and environment are saying the same thing, you get into a positive feedback loop. I don’t know if this has a Darwinian basis, but in the battle of ideas, and possibly in the battle of individualist genes, the left hemisphere probably wins, even though it doesn’t deserve to.

The global ecological situation is grim. Yet I would say that it is not so fruitful looking for things to do. There’s got to be a change of heart, of the way we think. Raising consciousness is the key—we cannot just tinker around the edge of this. Unless we all start living in a completely different way, it’s not going to work out. I don’t know whether we can get there in time. I do know human beings are remarkably resilient. One aspect of the current culture is that we take a low view of ourselves as destructive apes. While that’s certainly part of the picture, we are also enormously creative and capable of altruism, empathy and cooperation. The ecological crisis might precipitate a resurgence of those qualities.

Ultimately, if it doesn’t, I am immensely sad about the loss of humanity to the planet. Yet as long as Gaia continues, I’d just as soon see the world regenerated and run by hummingbirds in the future! Perhaps some other ape will come back in evolutionary time. Perhaps something better may evolve and not make the same mistake we have. We are one part of the Gaia story. We are here to enjoy the gift of life and be as responsible as we possibly can.

Our difficulty is that as soon as things are represented by the left hemisphere, they are no longer present. This is true of all religious and spiritual traditions: as soon as you think you’ve grasped the concept, you’ve lost the essence. But that’s alright because it’s part of the process of finding out more. It should keep you moving rather than keep you static. For some people, their best expression is to organize others in some way, and that is absolutely fine. I’m not in any way opposed to it. That may be the left hemisphere’s contribution, and a very valuable one. Yet it won’t work unless the right hemisphere contributes as well. Its contribution is that we change our vision.

Iain McGilchrist is a neurological psychologist interested in art, culture, philosophy & spirituality as well as mental health. His bookThe Master & His Emissary  provides convincing evidence that contemporary society is suffering from an over-dominant left brain hemisphere that has lost touch with the ‘master’ right hemisphere. Stephan Harding is head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College & the author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia..

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