Encountering the World: Toward An Ecological Psychology

By Edward S. Reed | Go to book overview
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through regulated action. Like any ecological resource, affordances are available to come into relationship with animals, but this need not happen.

Dialectical biologists, like mutualist psychologists, have also argued for a kind of reciprocity between organism and environment. The best argument along these lines comes from Richard Lewontin ( 1993). In the context of urging environmentalists to rethink their strategies, Lewontin argues that organisms actually construct the environment. Hence, he concludes that the environmental movement should not see nature as something to be "protected" from humans but rather see themselves (human beings) as part of nature, as parts whose actions can lead to good or evil consequences.

Lewontin's conclusion is correct, and should be heeded by environmentalists, but the argument he bases it on is incorrect. He proves that people (and other animals) are part of nature but not that we construct nature. He argues that individual organisms modify their habitats merely by existing (e.g., I create a warm layer of air around me), by physiological processes (e.g., breathing out carbon dioxide), and also by behavior (e.g., nest building). It is true that birds, beavers, and humans significantly alter the landscape (although not in as fundamental a way as earthworms), but it is false that we create this landscape. It is also true that plants alter our atmosphere, but false that they create it (and if any living things have a claim on creative power, it is plants). Many animals, human beings especially, significantly alter their local habitats (the environment of one organism), but they do so only by using resources they obtain from the environment (of all organisms). The environment is different because we are here; nevertheless, the environment would still be here if we were not here, whereas we would not be here if the environment were not. Even we proud human beings do no more than selectively modify our surroundings, we do not create them. We may know many things, but we do not know how to create an environment; and if we continue to ruin the only environment we have, it will be the greatest of tragedies.


The idea that animals are machines is by no means new. It was already two centuries old when Darwin's friend Thomas Henry Huxley ( 1874/ 1893) gave his address on "The hypothesis that animals are automata" to the British Assocation for the Advancement of Science. Darwin himself never believed that animals are machines, and he used to tease Huxley about this. When Huxley sent Darwin a copy of Science and Culture, a book reprinting the essay on automatism, Darwin ( Darwin, 1888, letter of January 12, 1882) suggested it would be useful for Huxley to refute his own argument "in the old . . . trenchant style" such as Huxley had used to good effect against Darwin's intellectual opponents. In perhaps the last letter Darwin ( March 27, 1882) sent his old friend, just three weeks before he died, the very ill evolutionist thanked Huxley for some medical advice, adding, "Once again, accept my cordial thanks, my dear old friend. . . . I wish to God there were more automata in the world like you."

Darwin's disbelief in the automatism hypothesis was based on decades of careful observation of invertebrate behavior. In his studies of worms, bees ( Darwin, 1878),


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