Are human beings not only not a pest on this planet, but actually a non-expendable keystone species?
That's what Carol Sanford argues for in her work, specifically in this article. She builds her line of argumentation on the concepts of energy-, space- and time-binding, building on the work of Alfred Korzybski. These concepts act as foundational heuristics to our understanding of life on this planet and the complexity it holds, and are – pardon – keystones to Carols way of reasoning.
So let’s cover those first, in my own words.
Disclaimer: For the sake of exploring this topic, I will go beyond reductionist assumptions about the universe. I know, it's our favourite cultural and scientific operating system. But if philosophy, reason or personal experience did not yet raise an eyebrow about reductionist claims about the universe, the implications of subatomic/quantum physics or the so-called ‘Mandelbrot Sets’ could.
Three evolutionary principles to bind the fabric of spacetime
The concept of energy-binding describes the ability of plants to bind and store energy by translating sunlight into chemical compounds through photosynthesis. By this process, vast amounts of sunlight hitting the Earth's surface are captured and turned into chemical energy to fuel more complex forms of life.
The concept of place-binding describes the contribution of these more complex forms of life, animals, to support a broad-scale process of energy-binding. Animals expand the range of plant life and connect (bind) ecosystems within and across landscapes, supporting them to fulfill their energy-binding function better. Think of animals eating fruit and taking the seeds to another place, helping hotspots of plant life expand outward and across the planet.
Lastly, the concept of time-binding builds on the unique trait of the human species to consciously make sense what's happening around us and propagate it through trans-generational learning. We're capable of gradually understanding the full context we’re operating in, layer by layer of comprehension. In this model, we are here to gather knowledge and preserve it for use, transmission and expansion. We are ‘binding’ the earliest breakthroughs of human understanding across countless generations to our current level of knowledge, and continuously build on it.
This perspective places us in the position of a knowledge curator and wisdom keeper, here to use the powers of cognition, reason and sensemaking in service of Earth's optimal development.
In this framework, we would be a required part of the system. A keystone species, the latest addition to this architecture of life and here to facilitate the journey toward higher and higher levels of complexity.
Now, you might argue that we fall a little short when measured against this shiny vision of the human condition. And I would agree. But the idea is: This would be the purpose that we are designed to fulfill, and that we have once been closer to.
Today still alive in indigenous communities, this could be what nature 'made us for’, however short we as a Western civilization might fall right now.
It’s hard to stay in your lane when the road is gone
Carol argues that because our position is the one of the time-binder, to imitate other forms of life is just not what we're here for.
Hence, she’s calling concepts like biomimicry into question. I would agree, partially: Our original job might be a different one, but we have this tenacious habit of creating both barriers and entropy. We can’t help it, we have to process the energy bound by other lifeforms in order to survive and thrive. We ourselves don’t bind energy, we disperse and degrade it.
More plainly: At the rate that we're moving right now, like fire, we eat up what fuels us – until nothing would be left.
Beyond this, when we create things, they typically turn out rather recalcitrant and not anymore useful or digestible for nature. Be it plastics, concrete or ‘forever-chemicals’, we slowly clog the system and threaten its ability to bind energy through plants (e.g. desertification and soil erosion) and places through animals (e.g. wildlife reduction and barriers to its movement).
It's true: We are not yet the wisdom keepers we are designed to be. We are even foolish enough to prevent the planets energy- and space-binders from doing their job. Right now, we produce effects that natural systems simply can’t process.
Some of the damages nature would just buffer and regenerate away, but not these overwhelming amounts of clogging, suffocation and disruption that can’t possibly be processed in sufficient timeframes.
A species in puberty
If this is our effect on a system that we are assigned to serve – well, that only shows our dire need to finally grow up.
Our myopic quarrels and unsustainable ways would prevent us from assuming our original assigned position. The problems we create threaten our ability to give our higher gifts, those of time-binding and wisdom keeping.
We can’t build a library that tells the story of gods on a foundation of sand that we constantly dig away at. I’d argue that to fulfill our mission as time-binders, we have to first sufficiently align with the energy- and place-binding functions of natures vital systems in order to not disrupt them. This would be the place of biomimicry and other pathways of sustainability and regeneration.
I agree that this might not be our ultimate function, but we absolutely need to stabilize the foundation we're operating from.
Now, instead of taking on the challenge, some people argue for a different ‘solution’: Begone!
Would the planet be just fine without us?
The common answer to this question is: Of course!
Nature was thriving before us and will do so after us. Hell, Earth would do grrreat. Best thing that ever happened to the planet, finally getting rid of this self-absorbed pest in suits.
Well, would it?
Let’s say we manage to not be a pest, get out of the way a little and lift the pressure from natures' aorta. Then a question pops up: Are we an optional accessory, finally allowed to enjoy itself, now that we’re not anymore a catastrophe to life around us?
Or do we, at this inflection point, assume something like an ’original assigned position’ – as a non-expendable keystone species to the development of life on this planet?
Does the dependency go two ways, or just one? Is it only us dependend on nature, or also nature dependend on us?
Assuming that the model of binding energy, space, and time fully adds up, we’re led to this question:
Are there other time-binders than humans?
One we understand to be the innermost center of biological life – DNA. But these helix molecules are ‘hardware’, slow to change and somewhat rigid. We’re talking ‘software’ here, quick to modify and adapt. So, beyond all of our curious quirks, itches and urges, Carol argues that humans are essential and uniquely required by nature for their time-binding purpose.
We are here to be stewards of once won insight, making sure it doesn’t get lost. Then again, climaxed ecosystems got disrupted countless times over the course of our planets lifetime, and they always seem to bounce back quicker than the original state of complexity took to develop.
How do they do this?
One possibility was referenced in Carol's original article: The ‘Hundreth Monkey Effect’. A similar take is Rupert Sheldrakes’ theory of morphic (or morphogenetic) fields. These theories overlap, and they essentially argue that vital data and learnings from past iteration cycles are kept in species-specific fields of information.
All members of a species have subconscious access to this information through what’s called ‘morphic resonance’. As an organism growing from embryo toward adulthood, it also grows into resonance with this field and absorbs its knowledge beyond the obvious ways of observation and repetition.
How does that show up?
The Hundreth Monkey Effect
In a field study of 1950s primatologists, it was observed that an island population of Japanese monkeys started to wash their sweet potatoes before eating them.
The original behaviour innovation was inititated by an 18-month-old female named Imo, and spread from there across her tribe throught observation and repetition. Nothing outstanding so far, that’s how we and other species learn.
The outstanding finding of this piece of field research was that this tribe of monkeys had no contact to their peers on the continental coast, but the habit of washing food seemed to have jumped over to the coastal monkey population anyway. This happened after a certain adoption rate of the habit was reached on the island, hence the ‘hundreth monkey’ that tipped the scale and finally pushed the information into the field as a behavioural staple.
The morphic field specific to the species was sufficiently saturated with the information of 'washing sweet potatoes before consumption' that it became accessible to the coastal tribe through morphic resonance.
Effects like this have been recognized before: Inventions got patented in multiple places around the same time without being in reach for outright plagiarism. The concept of nation states sprang up in multiple places around the world, all around the same time without any tracable (and unlikely) cultural exchange.
We seem to have a level of information transmission across the planet.
Is there a level of information transmission across time aswell?
Or in other words:
Does evolution have a safety net?
There’s no particular reason why information registered in a metaphysical space beyond matter wouldn’t stay present across time.
The enthnobotanist and philosopher Terence McKenna argued that nature seems to have a mechanism of retaining ‘novelty’, which he also found to be the very thing that nature originally strives to produce.
Morphic fields could then be understood as a metaphysical ‘backup’ to ensure an evolutionary forward motion against cataclysmic black swan events, like the meteor impact that ended the reign of dinosaurs. There seems to be a safety net of life’s architectural blueprints that ensures the distribution of critical knowledge across the planet, and across time.
Think ‘Platonic ideals in cycles of iteration’, where a self-organized forward movement of evolution ‘updates’ the metaphysical signature of physical phenomenon stored in morphic fields.
That's one a hell of a sentence, but it should make sense if you care to reread it.
Hunting for attractors
Then again, dinosaurs were never to be seen again. Why?
Did nature strive to assemble advanced nervous systems that allow for mammalian motherly bonding, love, and ultimately cheesy sob stories in front of sticky, popcorn-littered cinema seats?
Did evolution invest in neocortices in order to arrive at abstract art, architecture, aircrafts and articifical intelligence? If that’s the case, the fabled T-Rex with it’s poor excuses for arms and abysmal sense for both logic and romance just wasn’t the way to get there.
A German jazz musician and philosopher, Joachim-Ernst Behrendt, mused that the advent of the human species marks the moment at which evolution becomes conscious of itself. This would be a one-of-a-kind inflection point for the evolutionary journey on this planet, and something that would be called an ‘attractor’ in the ideational realm between McKenna and Sheldrake – a possible future state of complexity that nature itself strives to realize.
Given all of this, it’s likely that dinosaurs probably weren’t the right vessel to realize this breakthrough.
Would we return after extinction?
… the human ego asked hesitantly.
So dinosaurs weren’t it. Are we?
Would we be sacked by the radical cycles of nature – just like the T-Rex, tiny arms flailing against a falling sky?
Or would a 'morphic signature’ of homo sapiens sapiens (we really served ourselves an advance payment of self-flattery on this one) be stored for reassembly and another round of human(oid) civilization? Are we a novelty sophisticated and useful enough to secure a seat in a future-shaping morphic field?
Are humans required and needed by nature as a keystone species for their time-binding function, designed well enough to carry out this assigned function in order to qualify for another round of evolutionary pathfinding?
In other words: Is the human species something that nature would care to propagate and give another shot, or discard?
What we can say is that – as of today, on this planet – humans are without a doubt the dominant time-binding agent. So much so that Carol argues: 'If the human species becomes extinct, nature will have been massively harmed, possibly irreparably'.
We’re certainly fitting the definition of ‘propagating and disseminating knowledge across and forward’ for time-binding that I just made up. In that sense, we are a more concrete and physical represetation of a morphic field's time-binding properties, able to fulfill this role more immediately.
While it’s doubtful that we are anything close to a ‘final form' on this journey, we might be an important contributor to a foundational trait of the cosmos:
Rubber looking for a road to hit
Invisible Platonic potential floating around in space seems to be not quite satisfying enough to an assumed life force driving all of what we see.
Otherwise, one could argue, matter would not exist at all. The thrill and novelty that life looks to realize seems to only be found when Platonic ideals turn physical and manifest. It’s where the rubber hits the road, where metaphysical ideas can be realized, tested, and iterated. For that reason alone, it feels safe to argue that human species could be relevant and beneficial to the forward motion of life on this planet.
But there's a caveat: The position as a true keystone species would include a call to humility. We are not the crown of creation, a title designed to make our fragile ego not feel it’s own mortality for a moment. As a keystone species, we would be the latest humble steward of complexity and facilitator of balance that nature has produced.
That is, if we grow up.
So, are we this?
Are we an extension of the time-binding function of morphic fields, designed to accelerate evolution in a way that morphics fields alone could not? That's quite impossible to say conclusively, but against the backdrop of human self-loathing and -hatred, it seems to be a healthy collective human self-image and a productive systemic role to strive for.
It's also a good position to take should we feel the gamble of 'morphic reassembly' after extinction to be too speculative, and rather feel invested to get it right in the first (?) run: