we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

The Unseen Unseeing Old Buddha: Population Evo-Ecology

At the end of a meditation session, practitioners will often formally repeat something like, “May all beings live in harmony and be free from harm.” But what does this ‘metta phrase’ actually mean, coming from the one being who is free of the harmony of beings eating each other? In a time of species die-back unparalleled in the last sixty-five million years, can we afford such carelessness in our speech and understanding of the Natural World? —from Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.

When the teachers tell us the self is a convenient fiction, that we are in Reality one Buddhanature, they are relying on the intuition of practitioners to see what this points to, not only in this unique moment, but from each unique perspective. What needs to be further clarified, for this essay, is that our perspectives in fact have far more in common, and consequently are far more limited, than we like to think. Without exception, we see from the perspective of a mammalian body with innate responses for empathy with other mammalian or similar bodies, [1] and herein lies the challenge for understanding, intuitively, the Natural World of Species. Our body-minds readily empathize with other sentient, and especially ‘learning’, beings of a generally similar body structure and function, but they can’t empathize with a vast eco-evolutionary ‘learning being’ which manifests as a creatively intelligent unit through the genetically coordinated (and ultimately body-constrained; see Adjusting our focus, 1 below) inter-reaction of mammals, birds, herptiles, plants, fungi, and microbes. (Our ‘instinctive’ fear of spiders and snakes — disembodied but moving ‘hands’ in the first case, and limbless but moving ‘spectres’ in the second! — may also be seen in light of this ‘body-based empathy’ principle.)

The Natural world of species is a Genetic Intelligence which ‘behaves’ only within the unimaginably slow inter-generational timeframe of population evo-ecology. (If we don’t want to call this ‘sentience’, we can surely call it ‘creative learning’.) Up until now, as we helplessly watch this Natural world of species being ‘extinguished’ in real time, it has been convenient for us to overlook the fact that Eco-evolution is Intelligence, and that its integrity, seen from a strictly evolutionary perspective, seems to be temporally incompatible with that of humanity’s fast evolving, politically capricious, and presently out of control Techno-evolutionary Intelligence. [2] Can Buddhism’s expanded view of Mind, as incorporeal Buddhanature, offer us a way to change this horrible trajectory?

Distinguishing the two ‘ecologies’, and how their confusion limits our understanding of human response-ability.

“Ecology is the study of the interaction between organisms and their environment. The word ecology comes from the Greek words “oikos” meaning house and “logos” meaning word or study. Ecology today can be divided into two broad domains. The author Christian Lévêque uses the terms population ecology and systemic ecology to refer to them.” [3]

The short version of what distinguishes systemic ecology from population ecology is that the first is about how everything is interconnected as a unit (through atmospheric and other nutrient cycles for instance), and the second is about how everything is different (every species has a unique niche coordinated with the niches of other species). So it’s easy to see how systemic ecology appeals to those of us seeking to appreciate our “oneness with nature”. And in the immediate sense, or even the metaphysical, our oneness with the totality of nature is Real. But this is the easy way to dismiss a hard responsibility towards a distinguishable ‘sentient being’, isn’t it? The more we think about oneness the less there really is to think about. And if we can feel confident that an observant and empathetic life style will tell us the right thing to do in every moment, why would we take the trouble to pick apart the multiplicity of interactions among species that might determine in some unfamiliar way, and a hundred years down the road, what will become of this or that population of organisms we never get to see in our daily lives anyway?

The answer of course is that our current extinction crisis is made up of just such interactions, and it cannot be solved by those simple choices our intuition tells us are good because they make us feel good. This is true even when our immediate choices might appear, from a generational “shifting baseline” perspective, to be taking us in the right direction for achieving a balance in those all-encompassing cycles of energy and nutrients that support, systematically, the natural world. What makes this systematic approach to solving our Humans and Nature difficulties problematic is that, by population evo-eco thinking and, so far, as a matter of historical record, this ‘balance’ is not within our response-ability!

The extinction crisis cannot be solved by our calculated formulae or even our body-mind ‘intuition’ for manipulating physical systems, because Nature, meaning the totality of species, is no more a system than the human spirit is. It is a living Intelligence, a ‘being’ if you will, which, seen as a strictly gene-regulated biological unit that can be distinguished from its geological ‘environment’ (even Gautama made many such discriminations for ‘practicable’ purposes), is organized according to its own genetically evolving principles, not formulae. Human technology, with its culturally evolving principles, has no ‘part’ to play within Evo-Eco Intelligence. We no longer ‘belong’ to the Natural World of Species in the same way that genetically regulated species belong because, simply put, it does not in historical and ecological fact actually need us. Unlike any other species, we are not part of the flourishing! Going a little deeper, we might even say that it is in the very nature of our one-sided technological ‘strategy’ to simplify Natural systems in order to ‘supply’ our limited needs. Farm systems, even so-called ‘organic’ farm systems, are not Natural systems, certainly not Natural Intelligence, and it follows that they should be designed and located so as to displace as little of authentically co-evolving ecosystems as possible. https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2016/05/14/how-to-hear-a-whippoorwill/

Distinguishing two ‘minds’.

Population ecology is much more than the systemic ecology most laypersons reflexively associate with the experience of ‘oneness’, but since we can’t experience at population ecology’s ‘demographic’ level, any meaningful response to problems which arise at this level must be guided solely by our discursive evidence-based thinking, with intuition helping us only to apply the immediate forms and evaluate the human-level results of these fully deliberated responses. So here we are acknowledging, like good meditation students, that properly understanding our relationship to the Natural World of species involves not just authentic action at the organismic level, but it involves some dexterity with what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the ‘orthogonal rotation in consciousness’—that is, we are expanding upon our ideas through the very act of letting go of them. (Notice, this is also how Natural diversity arises through Natural selection.) There is a time for letting go of thinking, but this won’t help us repair the damages that our near-sighted sensoria have inflicted on a multiplicity-generating ‘mind’ that operates outside our mammalian intuitive sphere. Because interacting with sentience involves recognising it as sentience!

Uniquely among the branches of science, biology and especially evolutionary ecology, must leave theory wide open to the inescapable multiplicity of the Natural World. But even though evo-ecology is not a ‘hard science’, in this sense, certain patterns of species association over time can become established that remind us of the conceptual associations that give rise to human personality. Here are just three examples of this convergence: 1) population ecology’s ‘one species, one niche’ principle reminds us of Roget’s Thesaurus, wherein ‘no two words can have the exact same meaning’; 2) the indirect ‘species-mediating’ function of sexual selection reminds us of how indirect language behaviour mediates the ‘speci-fication’ of  overt and covert (i.e. thought) behaviours which have a more immediate application; and 3) anyone who practises mindfulness/insight meditation can attest that the arising, passing-away, and regeneration of our thoughts have a distinctively undirected, or ‘evolutionary’, progression.

Adjusting our focus,

Knowing the difference between concept and whole body-mind engagement is the central message of Buddhism. But to engage in a meaningful way with the ecocidal crisis we are faced with today we must extend our sensory capacity beyond our bodily limits, because this is where the problem actually comes into ‘view’. This isn’t difficult; it just takes a different kind of practice—just as looking through a telescope or a microscope allows us to see details that before were not Real to us. So let me focus the evo-ecological lens (allowing our internal bodymind ‘modelling’—always seen as such—to refine and maybe even ‘flavour’ what we see out the window?) at the lowest power needed to upset some familiar assumptions.

1. The first thing that should stand out as we ‘watch’ organisms resolve into species is that, whereas an organism must conform to the limits of a body structure that is fixed for a well-defined lifetime, a species can change structurally over an indefinite time.

2. Next, we may begin to ‘see’ that any such structural changes must take place in the context of other species, and so behavioural changes must conform to whatever bodily advantages one species might have over another, otherwise the ‘misbehaving’ organism’s germline will be cut short. This is what’s called the competitive exclusion principle, and it’s what brings order to evolving ecosystems. But also notice here that competitive exclusion looks a lot like the principle of Oscar’s Razor, which establishes order at the cultural level: ecosystems and ideas should be as uncluttered as possible, and this means no species, or concept, can be exactly the same as another, otherwise one of them will lose its ‘currency’—through direct competition, or just dumb luck as populations fluctuate.

3. By acknowledging this last mentioned “looks like” relationship of Natural and Cultural evolution, the immediate, or ‘personal’, dimension of Buddhist practice comes into play, and if we can harness this to evo-ecological thinking I am hoping the resulting discrimination will be finally powerful enough to address our otherwise intractable problem of human-caused mass extinction. To this end, we can adjust our focus even further, and now we begin to distinguish details within the ‘act’ of speciation itself, where we might notice another convergence of ecological and cultural ‘evolution’: sexual selection is distinguished from natural selection in that it doesn’t always favour the survival of an organism—quite the opposite sometimes—but rather it consolidates breeding behaviour much as language consolidates cultural behaviour and thought. (Putting ideas into words is ‘usually’ not dangerous to a culturally-defined person, just as sexual traits are not dangerous to an ecosystem, but talking things out can be dangerous to our most cherished ‘ideas’ in the same way as red breasts, for instance, can be dangerous to male robins.) In this way ecological and cultural ‘concepts’ are defined.  https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2019/12/08/the-real-language-of-nature/

Does this give a deeper meaning to what we now see when we sit with Nature? Does the personal connection expand our “right view” just a little, or perhaps even a lot and suddenly, beyond the animal and plant creatures before us? For created they are, and the gene-regulating author is calling out for our attention, and our remorse, as a technologically emancipated (hence, dangerously un-coevolving) ‘species’.

to expand our capacity for empathy.

As I said at the beginning of this excursion into population evo-ecology, this is only a very low-power focus, but I am hoping it allows those of us who are willing to continually expand our capacity for empathy to engage the real crisis of ecocide: our defining human strategy of accessorizing our forager-become-extractivist animal bodies disqualifies us from taking part in the creative activity of authentic ecosystems because our human bodies, when extended with technology, cannot be defined. To see what the practical implications of this shift in the ‘environmentalist’ paradigm might entail, you can explore the rest of this website, or for a brief pictorial introduction, go to: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Download-Quick-Tour.pdf

The proposal.

So this is my proposal: perhaps the Buddhist tradition, of viewing ‘mind’ more broadly than in its clinical meaning, can help us to re-imagine our relationship to the Natural World at this point of crisis (and I’m thinking here not only of the global warming and species extinction crises, but of an immediate experience of pandemic upheaval, which tends to open our collective thinking to new ideas). I am proposing that we in the mindfulness/insight meditation community foster a paradigm shift which can finally explain, in a constructive way, the very old, and very consistent, connection between technological innovation and species extinction.

[Yes, I know, we have all got used to the idea that traditional hunter-gatherer and even agricultural practices in the past were friendly to the Natural World, but this is simply not true. [4] The idea of  our ‘oneness’ with, let us say ‘universal nature’, thoughtlessly transferred to an operationally distinct Natural World of genetically regulated species, is the very paradigm that’s at the root of the kind of thinking that has allowed our extractivist economy to propel us blindly into our current mess.]

The body-less, therefore ‘unseen’, Intelligence of ‘ecosystem Buddhanature’, which also by the way metaphorically can’t ‘see’ us because natural selection cannot re-act at our speed (hence our ‘temporal incompatibility’), desperately needs our help, and we are failing in our responsibility as a technologically un-co-adaptable ‘species’ because we fail to appreciate the limits of intuition. Buddhadharma practitioners should be well positioned to address this human shortcoming, and so it is especially alarming to me when I witness exactly the opposite happening; when I hear, for instance, Buddhists repeating compassion phrases that wish “all beings” to be “free from harm”, when the living world, carefully ‘studied’, is known to be diversified by cropping and predation. From an ecological understanding this is as careless as environmentalists focussing on the Earth as ‘super-organism’ at the expense of properly understanding the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. Evo-ecology is ‘being’ too, and phylogeny is the creative ‘buddhanature’ of the Living World in the scientific understanding, while ontogeny is the comparatively programmed unfolding of its constituent organisms. Understanding this is equivalent, at the level of our daily practice, to seeing the difference between, on the one hand, the unborn-undying Buddhanature, which sees without fear the rising and the passing away, and, on the other hand, the many conditioned actions and reactions that can’t go beyond their natural span — even if, in our human confusion, we might want them to. It is natural for us to know how it’s the letting go (or the ‘letting be’ as one being observes another) that brings ‘creativity’ to both Humans and Nature, and this is what I mean when I say practitioners are well positioned to address the failure of the mammalian human organism to understand the multi-organism Intelligence which genetically regulates the Natural World of species, families, and phyla.


1. Dobbs, David. April/May 2006. A Revealing Reflection. Scientific American Mind, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 22-27. “Unlike monkeys, humans also use mirror neurons to directly imitate actions and understand their meanings. … Gallese and Rizzolatti found that when people listened to sentences describing actions, the same mirror neurons fired as would have had the subjects performed the actions themselves or witnessed them being performed.”

2. Also see: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/about-extremophile-choice/

3. See: https://www.knowswhy.com/difference-between-ecology-and-ecosystem

4. MacKinnon, J. B. 2013. The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, as it Should be. Toronto: Random House of Canada. (Vintage Canada Edition, 2014), pp. 65-66, “Scientists have debated the cause of the mass extinction for decades, but evidence increasingly points to the spread of humans around the globe at a time of intensive climate change. Go to any corner of the planet, and the moment that Homo sapiens first shows up in that place will be roughly the time that many of its large species begin to fall toward the void of extinction. Africa is the exception, where megafauna such as elephants, giraffes, lions and hippopotamuses evolved alongside people. Otherwise, the pattern holds.” Also see: Werdelin, Lars. Nov. 2013. King of beasts. Scientific American, vol. 309, no. 5, pp. 34-39.

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