From natural exclusion to natural inclusion
(extracts with permission from Alan Rayner’s paper: The Dynamic Relationship of Trees and Fungi: Symbiosis and Pathology published on Best Thinking )
The conventional rationalistic approach to categorizing relationships between different kinds of organisms is in terms of economic transactions between two parties, which result in gain (represented below as ‘+’) or loss (‘-‘) – or neither gain nor loss (‘0’) – to one or both. Correspondingly, it has become widespread practice, as described in many biological and ecological textbooks, to categorize these relationships into six basic types along the lines of the following schema:
+ + Mutualistic
+ – Exploitative – parasitic, predaceous, herbivorous
0 0 Neutral
+ 0 Commensal
– 0 Amensal
– – Competitive
There is an obvious linkage between this view of inter-organism relationships and our human notion of trade between two discrete individuals, which is reinforced by some of the associated terminology of ‘costs’, ‘benefits’ and ‘trade-offs’ that has become widespread in evolutionary ecology. But this raises the question of whether the categories identified are truly ‘natural’, or the result of an anthropocentric projection of human rationalization onto nature for which we selectively gather ‘evidence’ that fits our expectations as self-fulfilling prophecies.
The key problem, from which all others follow, is its foundation in the premise that organisms can be regarded as fully separate material objects, dislocated from the common space of their environmental ground. Correspondingly:-
- It is difficult to evaluate ‘cost’ and ‘benefit’ impartially. How can these realistically be measured? What criteria are being used to make such measurements? Are such criteria, for example nutritional exchange rates, independent from other criteria such as protective, environmental, developmental and reproductive influences? What truly constitutes a ‘loss’ or a ‘gain’ within the context of natural energy cycling, redistribution and evolutionary ecological transformation? Should our attention focus on ‘individuals’ or the ‘populations’ and ‘communities’ of which they are members?
- Why restrict attention to one-to-one transactions – why not include the influence of and upon others, including the environmental context of the habitat or ecosystem within which these transactions are supposedly taking place? Actually, the answer to this question is only pragmatically rather than intellectually justifiable. It lies in what is known as the ‘three-body problem’, whereby, as Isaac Newton himself came to recognise, the outcome of three or more bodies interacting under one another’s simultaneous mutual influence is impossible to calculate with certainty using conventional, discontinuous mathematical formulations. But then, what truly natural situation doesn’t involve three or more identities simultaneously influencing one another?
- What are the implications of restricting attention to a fixed reference frame (as is necessary to avoid the three-body problem using discontinuous mathematics) and so holding spatial context impossibly static? In effect, what is done here in order to try to simplify the dynamics into a manageable ‘small picture’ introduces non-existent structural limits that constrain and complicate the natural situation.
- By excluding or confining the infinite (i.e. indefinable, indivisible) openness of space from or within rigidly closed structure an unrealistically prescriptive model of evolutionary process is generated, which does not allow for natural variation. What appears to be gained by way of calculable predictability may lessen awareness of natural sources of uncertainty, making us ill-equipped to respond sensibly, sensitively and creatively to unforeseen possibilities.
The Inclusional Approach: Flow and Counter-flow
“In nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent singleness” – William Wordsworth
The inclusional approach to understanding organism-environmental neighbourhood seeks to recognise and account for distinctive possibilities without defining them into hard and fast categories or separating organisms out of context as discrete objects. Instead of imposing unnatural boundaries as definitive limits to the fixed frameworks of objective terms of reference, it works with natural, variably fluid boundaries as the dynamic framing for its open-ended focus on co-creative evolutionary processes of energy flow. Correspondingly:-
- It involves truly impartial evaluation of natural energy flows coming from all angles and not biased to one side and/or another. Individuals, populations and communities are all included as distinct but not discrete identities flowing into and out from one another.
- It is fully contextual, inclusive of the ecological neighbourhood that inter-organism relationships form in and transform. It takes into account, instead of seeking to ignore the ‘three-body problem’.
- It is dynamic, accounting for continually changing circumstances in limitless space. The macrocosm dynamically includes and flows into the microcosm as the microcosm dynamically includes and flows out to the macrocosm, without finite end or beginning.
- It is evolutionarily inclusive of receptive space as a vital presence, and so is realistically non-prescriptive and open to possibility. Evolutionary ‘learning’ generates complexity and variety through improvisational processes that incorporate past heritage and future possibility into present expression. The true craft of the practitioner who works with these processes is similarly improvisational and context-dependent, not rigidly prescriptive.
From a rationalistic perspective, any ‘effect’ or ‘reaction’ arises from the ‘local causal action’ of a forceful material ‘agency’. On this basis, many kinds of fungi are often described as ‘pathogens’, i.e. as ‘causes’ of disease in trees. By the same token, some fungi, notably mycorrhizal fungi and decomposer fungi that facilitate nutrient cycling and inhibition of pathogenic activity in soil may be afforded the status of ‘health providers’. Moreover, since these fungi are regarded individually to be ‘self-contained’ closed systems, their actions are readily interpreted as if they are directed by some internal ‘will’ or ‘genetic code’ that seeks to perpetuate itself at all cost. Such interpretations fall readily into line with the ‘self-assertive’ principles of neo-Darwinism that have become so deeply embedded in modern human culture, based on the quest for dominion over Nature in the ‘struggle for life’ that results in the supposed ‘survival of the fittest’.
From an inclusional perspective, however, no form or movement is possible without a receptive space for its accommodation, and this space is not confined solely to ‘somewhere local’, but extends continuously to everywhere, without limit (i.e. ‘non-local’). It is this receptive ‘host space’, not forceful local agency, which is the omnipresent ‘unmoved mover’ of nature that induces the flow of form into place in a potentially infinite variety of dynamic configurations.
Correspondingly, it is the inviting host space within a tree that could be said to draw fungal flow-form in to make itself at home, sustained by the flow of energy sources delivered via photosynthesis. What the implications of this induction may be will depend on how the fungal flow fits in with current circumstances of the tree as a figure in the terrain that it grows into as water, sunlight and minerals feed from the terrain into the figure.
In the contrast between the rationalistic and anthropocentric perception of the differential ‘survival of the fittest’, and natural inclusion as the differential ‘sustainability of the fitting’, comes a radical difference in understanding what it means to be ‘healthy’ or ‘diseased’. The former view equates ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ with productivity, and lack of productivity with being ‘unfit’ or ‘diseased’. The latter view associates attunement with the energy flows of natural neighbourhood with ‘healthiness’ and ‘fitting in’, and discordance with these flows as ‘miss-fitting’ and ‘dis-ease’.
From the perspective of natural inclusion, death does not end life, it feeds and opens the possibility of renewed life. Life is not a competition to succeed at others’ cost, it is a gift of natural energy flow, to be accepted and passed on in continual relay. Trees and fungi are no exceptions from this flow. Perhaps we need to bear this in mind as we seek to distinguish between what is healthy and diseased, and cultivate the terrain in which all flows through all.
(This article is formed from extracts from Alan Rayner’s paper: The Dynamic Relationship of Trees and Fungi: Symbiosis and Pathology published on Best Thinking )