Nature Is Culture.
I believe that nature and culture can now be understood as one unified process, not two distinct domains separated by some property of humans such as written or spoken language, consciousness, or ethics. Although there is no proof of this, and no consensus in the scientific community or in the humanities, the revelations of the past few years provide a foundation for both empirical and conceptual work that I believe will lead to a coherent, unified perspective on the process in which we and nature are engaged. This is not a take-over of the humanities by science, but a genuine fusion of the two based on clear articulations of basic concepts such as meaning and wholeness in natural and cultural processes, with implications for scientific studies, their applications in technology and their expression in the arts.
For me this vision has arisen primarily through developments in biology, which occupies the middle ground between culture and the physical world. The key conceptual changes have arisen from complexity theory through detailed studies of the networks of interactions between components within organisms, and between them in ecosystems. When the genome projects made it clear that we are unable to make sense of the information in DNA, attention necessarily shifted to understanding how organisms use this in making themselves with forms that allow them to survive and reproduce in particular habitats. The focus shifted from the hereditary material to its organised context, the living cell, so that organisms as agencies with a distinctive kind of organisation returned to the biological foreground.
Examination of the self-referential networks that regulate gene activities in organisms, that carry out the diverse functions and constructions within cells through protein-protein interactions (the proteome), and the sequences of metabolic transformations that make up the metabolome, have revealed that they all have distinctive properties of self-similar, fractal structure governed by power-law relationships. These properties are similar to the structure of languages, which are also self-referential networks described by power-laws, as discovered years ago by G.K. Zipf. A conclusion is that organisms use proto-languages to make sense of both their inherited history (written in DNA and its molecular modifications) and their external contexts (the environment) in the process of making themselves as functional agencies. Organisms thus become participants in cultures with histories that have meaning, expressed in the forms (morphologies and behaviours) distinctive to their species. This is of course embodied or tacit meaning, which cognitive scientists now recognise as primary in human culture also.
Understanding species as cultures that have experienced 3.7 billion years of adaptive evolution on earth makes it clear that they are repositories of meaningful knowledge and experience about effective living that we urgently need to learn about in human culture. Here is a source of deep wisdom about living in participation with others that is energy and resource efficient, that recycles everything, produces forms that are simultaneously functional and beautiful, and is continuously innovative and creative. We can now proceed with a holistic science that is unified with the arts and humanities and has at its foundation the principles that arise from a naturalistic ethic based on an extended science that includes qualities as well as quantities within the domain of knowledge.
There is plenty of work to do in articulating this unified perspective, from detailed empirical studies of the ways in which organisms achieve their states of coherence and adaptability to the application of these principles in the organic design of all human artefacts, from energy-generating devices and communication systems to cars and factories. The goal is to make human culture as integrated with natural process as the rest of the living realm so that we enhance the quality of the planet instead of degrading it. This will require a rethinking of evolution in terms of the intrinsic agency with meaning that is embodied in the life cycles of different species, understood as natural cultures. Integrating biology and culture with physical principles will be something of a challenge, but there are already many indications of how this can be achieved, without losing the thread of language and meaning that runs through living nature. The emphasis on wholeness that lies at the heart of quantum mechanics and its extensions in quantum gravity, together with the subtle order revealed as quantum coherence, is already stimulating a rethinking of the nature of wholeness, coherence and robust adaptability in organisms as well as quality of life in cultures. Furthermore, the self-similar, fractal patterns that arise in physical systems during phase transitions, when new order is coming into being, have the same characteristics as the patterns observed in organismic and cultural networks involved in generating order and meaning. The unified vision of a creative and meaningful cosmic process seems to be on the agenda as a replacement for the meaningless mechanical cosmos that has dominated Western scientific thought and cultural life for a few hundred years.