cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

FACTS, IDEAS AND VALUES : The Ecology of thought and action


Academic Anatole Pierre Fuksas has a blog {2}and an upcoming book of this name.  It’ll sell on the title alone: The Ecology of the Novel. For people of a certain mind set (including me) adding ecology to anything non-biological makes it instantly attractive. That’s partly because, 40 years ago, ecology came into my higher education, and it always seemed a transferable part of the intellectual tool kit: out of biology and into other disciplines.

Unfortunately, the use of the word ecology in non-biology does not necessarily mean that the subject is being tackled under the constrains of the concepts involved in the science of ecology. It’s often just a metaphor or a statement of intent which means, “I’m going to tackle this in a comprehensive, all-encompassing way.”  Though, as I write, I can imagine the flow charts we used to study which showed how energy moved up the food chain, and see how a literary scholar might fancy that this was not dissimilar to all that French stuff (intertextuality) about every book being from another book. The trouble is, saying something is like something is not necessarily a full explanation. Finding sets of analogs is a route to an explanation (Darwin’s use of analogs between domestic and natural breeding gave him the clue to natural selection) without being a complete one.

35 years ago, immediately after a science degree, having dutifully tackled Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logioco-philosophicus in the lull-before-the-storm-of-work-and-life-intellectual-catch-up-period,  I set to with a will on an outline of a book boldly titled Tractatus Ecologico-Mentus, without any idea if it was correct Latin, let alone if it contents meant anything sensible.

dealing w/problem/subject/treatment; treatment method; handling/management

draw| haul| pull| drag about; handle| manage| treat| discuss


I felt sure it was what one could say, in  an ecological framework,  in much the way Wittgenstein did with his Tractatus, except that unlike the Tractatus, (see Bertrand Russell’s attempt to explain what it was about in his intro. in 1922), it only dealt with the commonplace things one could say about mind from thinking about it, by subjecttive report and inference. For example, I could not allow myself to conjecture – about duality for example – about what a mind was or came from, because I could not tell, except through designed experiments.  I could not take any one’s word for it.  Though I could say something about consciousness because I was aware of being aware. I could say people seemed to stop thinking when they died. That would be classed a natural experiment. I could see they stopped talking, but not be sure they stopped thinking. The point being that all of us could do this basic philosophising (= clear thinking) and build up what was true for each of us. Later these notes could be compared with others in a dialogue or in a wider social setting. We do this all the time in any case because that is what being human is about, but we do not nornmally do it by means of numbered lists or flow charts!

TEM consisted of numbered lists of statements, as in TLP, without science – except in using the concepts of ecology – under three rough headings: Monologue, Dialogue, Society. I could say my mind – and by inference other minds – were capable of taking in the facts, constructing ideas from them [such as relations, or even correlations], developing values from the world of direct experience and reading, but not concern myself with any sort of examination of  the significance of the knowlege.

I could say things like “I can read that the leaning tower of Piza is in Piza”, and I could say that I might prove it was there by going to Piza. I could discuss whether the leaning Tower of Piza really was the leaning tower of Piza. I could only find out by historical research. I could not, for example rely on general opinion that it was. All standard philosophy.

This led on to the problem of accepting the word of others, which was dealt with under various headings such as trust, confidence, belief, lying, deceit, camouflage and red-herrings in the dialogue and social spheres.

In those days they divided ecology into synecology and autecology. The terms have gone out of favour. So my monologue corresponds roughly to autecology, while one-to-one or more communication to synecology.

Putting ecology in the title was meant to be serious. It didn’t just mean inter-connectedness.  If you are not familiar with ecological concepts, there are masses of website to help. Wiki: ecology is fine, and so is Fundamentals of Ecology, which has diagrams to help. The diagram I rather like and have not seen before (Section 1.3), ‘Scales of ecology’, pretty much encompasses why I thought I could write this. Logically, progressively, I could say what I knew about minds starting from my own mind, as thinkers have always done.  (Bear in mind I was not and am not a philosopher of mind). For example, I was rather keen on in some way finding ways to categorise mind according to ecological interactions (Diagram section 3.3): parasitic thoughts, mutual thoughts, commensal thoughts, etc.

The idea was any one with reasonable intelligence could work this all out using an ecological protocol.  Everything from idle thoughts and random acts to mental illness could be covered. When you are convinced someone is lying to you, where does it fit into your mental ecosystem? There are things we think, and there are things we say.  What was this tendency to want to spread what we thought? Or, to keep certain things hidden. Could it be described as some sort of food chain? Would such schemas help to in Dawkin’s term, extend the phenotype?

Thoughts lead inevitably to action. So it is obvious that a comprehensive ecological analysis cannot exclude anything that the mind sets upon. Can one filter all actions and artifacts (culture) as products of minds through an ecological sieve?

A not dissimilar process is going on when (o.k., I do such things, but am probably rare in so doing..) a chart or some sort of record is made of web surfing. Elsewhere I have described how long after this ecology of mind idea, I went through a period of making flow charts of individual web surfs, to see how they went, what was discovered, and ultimately how to get back into the surf at a particular point later, for a follow through in an area of the ‘map’ of thought/enquiry. I used to find I was highlighting certain discoveries as being significant to me or what I deemed to be of import in a fairly consistent way.

This is not to say that this is a significantly different a process from sitting down in library with a pile of reference books, and with a combination of prior suggestion (from one’s academic guide or mentor for example), of chapter headings and indices, working through till such a point as a clear set of clearly significant/important areas are delimited. But with a chart of a surf shows by visualisation where you have been (even if you tought you are so inclined..) in a way that the mind will not be able to recover from sets of written notes.


Nowadays, all sorts of things are confidently ruminated over by evolutionary psychology.  It requires a willful Casaubon-like refusal to see the mind cannot be studied within such strict ecological bounds. (If you wish to consider syncretism as against eclectism, feel free. Try Syncretic Reality: art, process, and potentiality: though about art disusses syncretism. For example:

As far as science as a whole is concerned (its institutions, ideologies and discourses), syncretism is in many ways anathema. The whole history of modern science has been to keep to the straight and narrow path of reductionism. This tunnel vision has had huge success and undoubtedly is the bulwark of pragmatism. So much of the economy of utility depends on it. But it has been singularly unsuccessful in terms of human development, biological understanding and psychological or spiritual insight. Science is firmly cautious of straying beyond the bounds of strict causality and reductive materialism, but artists are prepared to look everywhere and anywhere to try to reveal what is real and authentic in human experience. Science is caught in a trap of its own making: for example, it recognizes the counter-intuitive precepts of quantum physics, while refusing to recognize their metaphysical implications. In so far as matters of consciousness are concerned, science is in denial.

The question began to arise, Is attempting to squeeze brain and mind into an ecological framework nothing more than using ecology as a metaphor. And, Is analogising bound to fail?

Anthony Campbell: The Casaubon Delusion, Avoiding the Casaubon Delusion.


When you use a map it is to find a fact in two dimensions that you can use in practice in three. But sometimes the detail hides the answer. A simple map often provides the answer a more detailed ones hides.  So An Ecology of Mind (There is a book, Towards an Ecology of Mindth, by Gegory Bateson, and it is, to me, largely incomprehensible), would only be a route devised from a map with a lot of the detail left out.


As I review what I briefly and almost perfunctorily tried to achieve (Had I gone doolally after the rigors of finals imagining there lay some sort of comprehensive working protocol? ), almost as if nothing had come before,? Compiling my A-Z of topics to consider, it was clear there is something, in principle, to be said for treating the mind ecologically – that is to say pretty much ignoring the structure of the brain inthe sense of what bit is responsible for what function. Any possible links between structure and function which are claimed now with scanning are still a bit iffy, in that these are in the end often just correspondences which seem significant but which we have no real way of knowing if there is cause and effect or ifthey reperesent some sort of epiphenomena – an area lighting up in the brain may be in a module but the whole brain is probably involved in some way.

The scan is not revealing the details of the relationshion between the words read, listened to, or learnt or responded to and the highlighted area in any very meaningful way. Most scans just says, “yes, the word you are thinking about now is being processed in some way in that area of the brain.”

There will be limited use in simply searching for analogs and then applying particular ecological rules to the analogs.

You only need to read an introductory ecology text to see sentences such as, “When the human activity lacks controls and regulations, great catastrophes can take place.” {1} It seems pretty sensible to try to squeeze the round peg into the square hole.  Only a week or two ago, I was watching a tv programme in which a tribal group demonstred its ‘ecological’ credentials (they knew nothing else but the ecological) by only taking a few fronds from each tree as they prepapared to build a shelter. So, one assumes, man was ecologically-minded once. How did he become what he is now from that? An answer to be found in the study of civilisation and civilisations.  Or did this ecological way of thinking persist in the mind but become subsumed by more powerful concerns?

So those civilisations which petered out had reached a critical mass, so to speak, as an organised society, beyond which they were incapable of acting ecologically. Easter Island comes to mind. But of course these tribes had a simpler system to consider: when they had removed too many leaves in the past, and the tree had died, they learnt not to do it again. After all that tree had other things they wanted.

My idea was to use ecological principles to describe and organise what we thought, saw, heard, said, smelt, felt, did. Nothing to do with how the brain worked, the details of how these experiences or thought were produced: just the thinking and the consequences in general terms of all the thinking, which is a mixture of old-fashioned philosophical ratiocination and and an ecological framework or template or limiter.

Plenty of people have used the metaphor of ecology to explain how the brain works (Bateson, Edleman neural group selection). The typical pop-science explanation of Edleman’s theory was that the brain was like a tropical rain forest.  This directs to something that might not be immediately obvious to a non-biologist. Ecology = evolution. That is, ecology operates through evolution and genetics. Though a description of an ecosystem can be made without reference to Darwin or DNA, what has been described wouldn’t work without evolution. In practice, as this interview with Eugene Odum, one of the founders of modern ecology, who wrote Fundamentals in Ecology, shows, ecology went from the descriptive to a holistic approach which dealt with every aspect of how an ecosystem worked: the pH of the soil, the moisture in the air, the physiogical adaptations of the plant or animal.

April 24, 2009 Posted by | ecology, mind | , , , | 1 Comment