296. Acting as in nature
Biomimicry is a new scientific paradigm, looking to nature as a source of inspiration for the design of things. Freya Mathews developed this into a lesson also for human conduct.[i]
A fundamental feature of conduct in nature, as recognized also by Spinoza, is the conatus: the drive to maintain and expand and develop oneself. Similarly, Plato recognized the notion of thymos, as a fundamental drive to manifest oneself.
Mathews proposed that in nature conatus is combined with a striving towards least resistance, avoiding unnecessary fights and dodging obstacles, to conserve energy. That contributes to survival in evolution, in not wasting energy but seeking to employ rather than resist ambient forces of nature. Her prime motive was to find a way of profiting from nature while conserving and reviving it, in a sustainable economy.
This appears also in WuWei, the principle of ‘letting go’ or ‘non-interference’, in the Chinese philosophy of Tao. It goes back further, I think, in Hindu Vedic philosophy.
It appears to stand in stark contrast with Nietzsche, with his ‘will to power’, rejoicing in the overcoming of obstacles, and with the rhetoric, in economics and business, of strategies of ‘conquering’ markets’ and ‘defeating the competition’.
One might object that in nature also there is destructive rivalry, as in males fighting over females. Sometimes that is more feinting than fighting, but it can be very violent. That also is part of evolution: next to the urge to survive there is the struggle for progeny.
WuWei can be passive, letting go, but also active. That entails the search for ambient conatus to harmonize with one’s own, in symbiosis. In evolution this can yield ‘co-evolution’: the selection environment evolves together with the units that are selected.
In societies and economies, this would mean the seeking of complementarity in ties between people, and between organizations, in knowledge, skills, roles and positions, in alliances and networks. I have pleaded for that, and developed the logics for it, in much of my professional work. The art of it is to seek how what one does may fit and favour what others want, for them to reciprocate, in search of some sort of balance of mutual cost and advantage. In fact, we see an urge to overcome, in takeovers between firms, rather than the patient building of alliances.
There are two problems to this story.
First, as Mathews recognized, human beings, more than other beings, are prone, in their conatus, to overcome limitations and obstacles presented by nature, rather than bending to them. While often this results in destruction of nature, it can be of crucial benefit to humanity, in preventing or controlling storms, say, or earthquakes, and illness.
So, how to reconcile this with WuWei? Perhaps one can see imposition on nature as only a measure of last resort, when active WuWei fails.
The second problem remains the Nietzschean will to power. The flourishing of life can be antagonistic, in contests, debates, war and strife. The answer to this may be twofold. Contests should not destroy but build, in a striving for excellence, and contestants should admire and grant the winner’s triumph, with the winner staged as a role model.
Diplomacy should do its utmost to prevent wars in seeking reconciliation or compromise in rivaling conatus. And when war is inevitable one should seek to employ the enemy’s flow, his moves, to create his defeat.
Economies should seek to thrive in both collaboration and contest, and the latter should be beneficial to the whole (society) in which it takes place. Competition can be contest for excellence, but it can also be mutual destruction, elimination or take-over.
I am reminded here of the distinction between positive and negative power, discussed earlier in his blog. Positive yields more room for choice, while negative power reduces it or imposes choice. It is ethical to pursue the first but not to pursue the second.
[i] Freya Mathews, ‘Towards a deeper philosophy of biomimicry’, Organization and Environment, 24/4, dec. 2011