Human ecology
The Marriage of Object and Subject

Notes - 2-3/4/00

(I reply to an e-mail)

You ask my primary reason for caring about biology and sociology - am I only allowed one reason? (Note 7/4/00 - see Convergence and Divergence) For an overall reason - I love the world and living things. For specific reasons some of the following...

"Short answer" (Written half-way through this e-mail)
Biology is objective, sociology is subjective, both disregard the other, both have lots to teach each other about the world and how to live in it.

(Note 7/4/00 - Methodology - assume that biology and sociology are separate languages (even though they may both be written in English). So a word in biology may not mean the same as a word in sociology. Attempt to find translations between biology and sociology.)

"Long answer"
I had a science background and I grew up and still live in a beautiful part of the world. Perhaps, as a result of my science background, I saw the ecological problems of the world as being rooted in economics and a particular type of subjectivity. A subjectivity that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A subjectivity that is perhaps associated with fashion or with the superficial. A subjectivity that values an organism by individual whim rather than valuing the organism for itself. (Note 7/4/00 - I now call this type of subjectivity "dissolutism" - see Does the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have anything useful to say to science?)

Andrew Marvell writes in "The Garden" :-

(19) Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress' name.
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair tree! wheresoe'er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.

To which I would add - the tree, in growing, carves its own name, it does not need one to write "Beech" or "Rowan", upon it. In this analogy I see the "Lover of Money" carving a price on to the tree. "Biologist", on the other hand sees the tree as a object in itself, as something apart from its human given name.

This reading of subjectivity coloured my perceptions of sociology, economics, psycology and cultural studies. I saw these disciplines as part of a selfish human-centred view of the world.

It has taken me a long time to break my misconception of subjectivity. I now try to see biology and sociology as two different descriptions of the world. Descriptions do not agree with each other. Description that through their disagreement allow a better picture of the world to be built. I like to think of the analogy of two eyes: each eye sees a slightly different world - together they allow us to perceive depth.

The change in my perception of subjectivity has come about for many different reasons. At Warwick University they introduced us to the human sides of ecology. Our Professor, Jacquie McGlade, brought together students from all sorts of backgrounds and exposed us to many different approaches to ecology. I had studied Astrophysics as a first degree there were biologists, economists and chemists business studies, engineering and mathematics students.

Because I hated economics, they suggested that I study it. Jacquie had studied with Habermas and taught us about his theory of communicative action. I was sharing a house people that were studying Cultural policy, Media, English Literature, and Mathematics.

My Msc.thesis was on "Accounting for Environmental Decision Making". It was mainly a review of the problems of valuing the non-human inputs into national economies. It drew heavily on Dryzek's criticisms of Rational Choice Theory. It contrasted surplus value theories with labour value theories. The main result was that it was difficult to describe an ecosystem in terms of numbers or prices.

As a physicist and a mathematician I found this hard to believe, I had been used to describing things with numbers. However, I did find some characteristics that might explain why numbers didn't work.

In ecological situations, actions change their environment and the changed environment changes the results of actions. For the sake of the following discussion I will call this the Rule of Ecological Action. (pretty basic biology - but I never studied academic biology beyond the age of thirteen - I didn't want to do dissections.)

Does this characteristic make ecology objective or subjective? I didn't know. By this time, I had had the privilege of speaking to Vandana Shiva (Jacquie has written several papers with her). I was interested in a discrepency in economics. Economics textbooks justify free-market economics through the aggration of individual's subjective preferences - whereas Vandana Shiva describes economics as an objective attempt to standardise the world. I could not reconcile this paradox at the time, but it has been a problem that occupied my time for a while.

(Note 7/4/00 - the paradox is that something can be both subjective and objective at the same time.)

(At this point I wrote the short answer)

This paradox undermined my faith in definitions of objective and subjective, and allowed me to approach sociology with a fresh mind. Habermas' distinction between Instrumental rationality and Communicative rationality seemed to encompass some of flavor of ecological action. I have spent the last three years trying to find other descriptions that may help. The first was Ulrich Beck's idea of Reflexive Modernisation, I have also found useful stuff in semiotics and cultural theory.

I want to get biology and sociology to talk to each other because:

This is the primary reason why I care! (Well, you did ask)

Any ideas / suggestions you have will be gratefully received,


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Created 7/4/00