08 September 2023

The earth as "one large living organism"

"Soon after he graduated in 1909, Aldo Leopold headed to the Southwest to take a job with the U.S. Forest Service—the new federal agency charged with the equally new task of “wildlife management.” For Leopold and his colleagues, managing wildlife meant, among other things, killing creatures deemed undesirable by ranchers, farmers, and hunters. Few were deemed more undesirable—or made for more exciting targets for young men with guns—than wolves. “In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” Leopold remembered some decades later in his book A Sand County Almanac.

So when Leopold and a companion spotted an old she-wolf and her half-dozen pups tangling playfully on a steep hillside, the men started “pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy. . . . When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.” As the men moved closer to size up what they had done, something unexpected and arresting happened. As Leopold recalled:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
This gaze into the eyes of the other, this glimpse of an animal’s spirit, became a foundational moment in the history of ecological consciousness. Leopold’s account of the dying wolf went on to describe the calamitous consequences of exterminating the entire species: mountains denuded of every edible tree and bush by proliferating deer, rangeland turned into dust bowls by overgrazing cattle. The eradication of the wolf would upset the balance of nature...

From a biologist, he learns about holobionts—“collaborative compound organisms, ecological units ‘consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.’ ” None of this would be news, Macfarlane notes, to indigenous peoples, whose animistic traditions postulate a symbiotic relationship with their jungle or woodland environs.

Consider a common origin tale throughout the world: In the beginning, everything was mixed up with everything else. All living things inhabited a world without boundaries. Identities were fluid, species and sexes interchangeable. All was in constant flux, until a trail of cosmic accidents led to tension and eventual separation between women and men, humans and animals, gods and mortals. After this fragmentation, earthly creatures continued to inhabit an animated universe, where rocks, trees, plants, and animals were all ensouled with a mysterious force or spirit—what anthropologists would call manitou, or mana—a force that kept the fragments from flying apart...

One reason many scientists have disdained the animist view in the past was that it acknowledges that organisms help make their environments, as opposed to merely adapting to them. The idea that organisms can participate in their own evolution has come to be known as “niche construction”...

In recent decades, epigenetics have made more ambitious claims than niche construction theory, suggesting that changes in an organism’s environment may actually have effects on its DNA... Nearly all cells possess the biochemical tools for changing their DNA, and they use them “responsively, not purely randomly,” as the historian Jessica Riskin has put it. No gene, it has begun to appear, is an island...

And a clearer understanding of our relationship to nature demands a sensitivity to the ways that organisms engage with the contingent circumstances of their environment on historical scales. For humans, that environment includes religions and ideologies and economic systems as well as air and soil and water...
Excerpts from The Power of the Dog in Harper's, which is in turn an excerpt from Animal Spirits by Jackson Lears, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


  1. Additional Information related to the Wolves in Yellowstone National Park
    25 years after returning to Yellowstone, wolves have helped stabilize the ecosystem
    Research shows that by reducing populations and thinning out weak and sick animals, wolves have a role in creating resilient elk herds.


    Video from National Geographic:

  2. Have you heard of James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis/theory? It's a scientific way of looking at how the Earth self-regulates temperature, oxygen levels etc via a complex web of living systems. Here's a taster: https://youtu.be/GIFRg2skuDI?si=wNNSVn-LL6SrFFl6


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