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  • Writer's pictureArnold Schroder

#74: Sub-Self, Meet Meta-Self

(03/20/2024) You've heard a million times that the history of life on earth is one of systems tending toward ever-increasing complexity, but in this episode, we argue evolutionary history is best conceptualized as one of ever-expanding boundaries of selfhood. In so doing, we apply a unique lens to concrete questions which have vexed environmental politics for generations: is the trend toward increasing scale and complexity in human societies intrinsically bad? Is nature whatever humans aren't doing? Can we exert conscious influence on ecosystems and revere them at the same time? We make a case for a politics in alliance with the broad tendency of life on earth to increase the scale of the “self,” arguing that while people have clearly lost hope in the revolutionary mythologies they invented out of psychological need, this particular mythology of expanding selfhood is real, and therefore durable.

Somewhere along the way, we note how the power exercised in extractive hierarchical societies precisely recapitulates the logic of cancer: when the perceived boundaries of the “self” shrinks, cells (or people) begin treating the systems of which they are a part as “other.” We also see how central nervous systems evolved repeatedly in different animal lineages, complex cell anatomy resulted from organisms failing to digest what they had eaten, octopus arms might be independently conscious, and domestication can be broken down into sub-components by relevant brain system. To top it all off, Arnold cries just a little at the very end. What more could you possible ask for? If your answer is “a video where a bunch of very interesting people who met through Fight Like An Animal talk about some of these same themes,” here's a video called The Computational Boundaries of an Octopus.

Bibliography for episode 74:

Büscher, Bram, and Robert Fletcher. The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene. Verso Books, 2020.

Carls-Diamante, Sidney. “Where Is It Like to Be an Octopus?” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 16 (March 14, 2022).

Frank, Adam, David Grinspoon, and Sara Walker. “Intelligence as a Planetary Scale Process.” International Journal of Astrobiology 21, no. 2 (April 2022): 47–61.

Gariépy, J. F. The Revolutionary Phenotype: The Amazing Story of How Life Begins and How It Ends., 2019.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin, 2005.

Lee, Howard. “The Complicated History of How the Earth’s Atmosphere Became Breathable.” Ars Technica, May 15, 2023.

Levin, Michael. “Technological Approach to Mind Everywhere: An Experimentally-Grounded Framework for Understanding Diverse Bodies and Minds.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 16 (March 24, 2022).

Margulis, Lynn. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution. Basic Books, 2008.

McFadden, Johnjoe. Quantum Evolution. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Noble, Denis. Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Pyne, Stephen J. The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next. Univ of California Press, 2021.

Shigeno, Shuichi, Paul L. R. Andrews, Giovanna Ponte, and Graziano Fiorito. “Cephalopod Brains: An Overview of Current Knowledge to Facilitate Comparison With Vertebrates.” Frontiers in Physiology 9 (2018): 952.

Quammen, David. The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Williams, Mark, Jan Zalasiewicz, PK Haff, Christian Schwägerl, Anthony D Barnosky, and Erle C Ellis. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review, n.d.

Woodburn, James. “Egalitarian Societies.” Man 17, no. 3 (1982): 431–51.

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