The Myth of Survival

Although the concept of “selfish gene” has been all but scientifically abandoned, the basic concept of “survival” underlying it remains firmly entrenched in naturalistic narratives. This is a problem for this simple reason: it blocks us from increasing our understanding of (our) nature.

Part of the myth of survival is the myth that it is an inescapable consequence of going for a naturalistic narrative in the first place. That it is not is something Deleuze tells us based on a thorough reading of Hume (in his Empiricism and Subjectivity) where he says: “And, above all, Hume centers his critique on the theory of egoism.” The myth of survival is, of course, also the myth that, when push literally comes to shove, we choose based on self-interest. Hume was not Hobbes.

The other part of the myth of survival is that we need a unifying concept of life to which all else can be reduced.  Survival seems to be the only concept that survives the struggle for narrating nature and culture alike. But, as Deleuze says, this falsifies both as: “Nature and culture form a complex. Hume refuses theories that reduce everything to nature (..) just like those reducing everything to nurture. The first, in forgetting culture, give a false impression of nature; the others, in forgetting nature, deform culture.”

The question then is: do we need the concept of survival at all? And if we do, what needs to be put alongside it such that we get a naturalism doing justice to all the facts (included those related to notions like solidarity, friendship, love, and self-sacrifice)?

The short answer is that we do indeed need the concept of survival. We need it because it is indispensable to capture our subjectivity in the first place. Consider the phrase “selfish gene”: it functions because survival of the replicator implies a subject that has the desire to survive. Consider the rival naturalist theory of “autopoiesis”: it functions because there is an organism (some body) that in its desire to survive instantiates the autonomous self. Hume was not Hobbes but when he criticizes a “theory of egoism” he cannot thereby also criticize that egoism is a factual characteristic of living things. Subjectivity is constituted by a sense of survival, such is also the tenet in a the philosophy of biology of Canguilhem.

As said, that cannot be the end of the story though. Because what survives? Many things do: the gene survives, but so does the cell of which that gene is a functioning part, and so does the organ of which that cell is a part, as does the body of which that organ is a part, right up to: as does the society of which that body is a part. Survival all the way through, as is again clear from Dawkins’ extension to memes and clear from the application of the concept of “autopoiesis” to multicellular organisms, right up to: survival being relative to the environment in which the organism lives. If the “selfish gene” is all but scientifically abandoned it is because survival applies equally to the environment – or niche – in which an organism survives as to the organism that survives in its niche. In fact, organism and niche co-survive: the survival of the (genes of the) organism maintains the survival of the environment. And vice versa.

Hume and Deleuze, without reference to any of this, criticize “the theory of egoism” as it cannot choose between these perspectives and consequently explains nothing interesting at all, taken in isolation, i.e. taken as “the myth of survival”. The thing is that we can only speak of survival in the context of what has survived. More specifically we only speak of survival because something evolved that can speak at all, namely us. Evolution supposes not only (repetitive) survival but presupposes difference as well, not just any difference but the kind of difference that leads to the notion that has naturally emerged above: that of “co-survival”. Subjective sense-making is nothing without participatory sense-making. Egoism and solidarity are a pair just like figure and ground are (and just like particle and wave are; Bohr’s great insight which is still struggling for its survival).

So what we need to put alongside survival is the concept “alongside”. Because: what is co-survival? It is two subjectivities co-operating through their difference to find some level of stability in this world. In search of stability they unavoidably create new difference, & so on & so forth. Whitehead captured something of this in his idea of the endless rippling in the universe that got “processed” in the moment to create some feeling of endurance. I find this appealing but still too much collapsing the difference in one grand eternal flow. Our reality (and that’s the reality of Hume on which Deleuze reports) is more discrete. In it, difference never gets collapsed because the subject always remains herself. Not itself, we have left the territory of cheap anthropocentric metaphor and entered the domain of our everyday intersubjectivity without which none of these contrasts could ever become truly active.

This is how nature and culture form a complex. It is our nature and our culture which we extend to all animate life (and for some even inanimate matter). This is the source of all duality and as it is the outcome of evolution we cannot but make naturalistic sense of the world in terms of dualities. This is not a restriction we have, it is a freedom the world has. If the world would not have such freedom it would not have been able to have anything like us. Like this:

Philosophy Extended

The gloss of this picture with Derrida would be: we all leave traces that change the world and that get interpreted by others who are changed by it in ways that can’t be predicted. And so on. The gloss of this picture with Davidson would be: together we make sense of a world independent of us, this implies a charitable agreement that makes a difference to a world independent of us. Both get something right about nature, only Davidson also gets it right about our nature (and therefore of all nature because how can nature be at odds with our nature?).

Some naturalists won’t be satisfied but let them talk to what doesn’t talk back.

PS: I don’t think you have to talk like a human being to be able to talk. I do think that if we ask ourselves the question whether or not an individual wants to tell us something, it is the charitable thing to assume it could be able to talk.

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