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SSI52210.1177/0539018413478325Social Science InformationLestel

Social Science Information

The withering of shared life 52(2) 307­–325
© The Author(s) 2013

through the loss of biodiversity Reprints and permissions:

DOI: 10.1177/0539018413478325

Dominique Lestel
Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris

The article defends a conception of ecology that considers what ecosystems mean
not only in themselves but also for themselves. Each living being is thus a message
for another living being, and not merely a functional piece in a physical process of
energy exchange or in an evolutionary process in which individual reproduction is all
that counts. The article deems that the hatred of the animal kingdom characteristic of
Western history and the resulting atrophy of our imagination of the living world explain
our blindness. The author suggests Westerners should be more open to non-Western
ways of thinking, which might help overcome their difficulty in thinking through the
existential, ethical and cultural stakes involved in the present collapse of biodiversity.

animal kingdom, collapse of biodiversity, ecology, ecosystems, living beings, Western

L’article défend une conception de l’écologie qui considère que les écosystèmes
biologiques ont une signification non seulement en eux-mêmes mais aussi pour eux-
mêmes. Chaque être vivant est alors un message pour d’autres êtres vivants et pas
seulement un pion purement fonctionnel dans un processus physique d’échanges
d’énergie ou dans un processus évolutionnaire dans lequel la reproduction de l’individu
est le seul critère à prendre en compte. L’article estime que la haine de l’animal qui
caractérise l’histoire occidentale et l’imagination atrophiée du vivant qui en résulte
expliquent les raisons de notre aveuglement. Il suggère que les Occidentaux devraient
s’ouvrir plus largement à des pensées non occidentales pour pallier leurs difficultés
à conceptualiser jusqu’au bout les enjeux existentiels, éthiques et culturels de
l’effondrement actuel de la biodiversité.

Corresponding author:
Dominique Lestel, Département d’études cognitives, ENS, 45 rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris, France.
Email: lestel@ens.fr

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308 Social Science Information 52(2)

conceptions occidentales, écologie, écosystèmes, effondrement de la biodiversité,
êtres vivants, royaume animal

Loss of biodiversity is a problem for which our culture does not propose a truly satisfy-
ing answer. Edward O Wilson points out that throughout our evolutionary history we
have been more or less selected for short- or medium-range reasoning (what he calls
physiological time) and not for long-range reasoning (Wilson, 2012 [1984]: 156ff) that
is needed for thinking biodiversity. Despite my huge admiration for Wilson, his remark,
like most evolutionist hypotheses of the sort, has more to do with fashionable chatter
than with serious reflection. But I think there is another more pertinent reason for the
difficulty we encounter: we unjustifiably neglect some of the fundamental issues at stake
in this biological and cultural catastrophe – in particular the problem of the pathologies
entailed in the sharing of life between humans and other living beings. Ecologists ana-
lyze biodiversity exclusively as a question of biological regulation, passing over not only
the semiotic dimension of the living world but also the diversity of meanings carried in
each living being and the connectivity that ensues for one and all. From this standpoint,
contemporary ecology errs in two ways. First of all by considering that living beings
occupy shared ecosystems whereas they actually live together. And then by thinking that
this ecological crisis is a side-effect of our technological progress that could be remedied
using tools advantageously selected from among the poisons that are killing us. In this
sense, the collapse of biodiversity is not the unfortunate outcome of the technological
bent of Western societies, but on the contrary the consequence of the nature of Western
culture1 from the outset – its technological mindset being ultimately only one of the
Far from being an unexpected side-effect of Western culture, I believe that the sup-
pression of nature is on the contrary one of its most deeply seated aspirations dating from
its Greek beginnings. The ideology of the human being as unique, which is one of the
main pillars of Western culture, considers that human beings are not animals, that the
latter are on the contrary always a threat to man and that culture must be substituted for
a nature, which is, on the contrary, where animals live. Humans are therefore conceived
as living beings who not only do not share a common life with other living beings and do
not have to be concerned with them, but who must, on the contrary, do their utmost
to protect themselves from these other beings. If this anthropological intuition turns out
to be true, it means that a suitable response to the present ecological crisis must first be
grounded in a radical critique of European humanism and culture.

Four forms of ecology

When the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess distinguished and opposed, in 1973, a
deep and a shallow ecology (Naess, 1973), he was distinguishing an ecology that thinks
environmental problems have a technical solution from an ecology that believes biosys-
tems should be considered for themselves, independently of the interest they may hold
for humans. Erazim Kohàk later felt that a distinction should be made between a shallow

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Lestel 309

ecology, a deep ecology and a depth ecology – one which considers that biological
ecosystems, such as mountains, have their own subjectivity (Kohàk, 2000: 180–182).
However, yet a fourth way of conceiving ecology can be distinguished – an ecology that
considers biological ecosystems have a meaning not only in themselves but also for
themselves, and that every animal is a message for another animal, to generalize the idea
expressed by Jesper Hoffmeyer, who considers that a dog is a message for another dog.2
The field of biosemiotics that emerged with the work of Jakob von Uexküll in the mid-
20th century is still largely ignored by the majority of contemporary philosophers,
despite the recent revival of its practice,3 or is simply superficially glossed over and
rarely discussed as it deserves to be. And yet it opens potentially fertile perspectives on
numerous aspects of the evolution and conservation of species. Furthermore it is very
useful in gaining a better grasp of one of the major issues at stake in the present loss of
biodiversity – for it is not only the diversity of biological species that is under threat here,
but also semiotic diversity, which is at least as serious, in other words the capacity of
living beings to live together. And this capacity cannot be reduced simply to that of co-
inhabiting the same ecosystems.

The semiosphere
Discussing the notion of ‘semiosphere’, the Estonian semiotician Yuri Lotman
extended Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt – the surrounding world or what we often term
environment – to the whole planet, giving it a global connotation and at the same time
helping to highlight some of the most important evolutionary stakes in play (Kull,
1999). Speaking of a ‘semiotic niche’, Jesper Hoffmeyer takes an important step in
the same direction. Suddenly, concern for the other takes on an unprecedented scope:
it is no longer a question of simply allowing the individual to survive physically, but
also of granting him the semiotic space that is an integral part of his lifespace. This
perspective places semiotics at the highest level – that of a quest for meaning that is
intrinsic to every living being.

Paul Shepard’s ‘human ecology’

The path of the biosemioticians thus converges with that of Paul Shepard, who is to my
knowledge the first Westerner to have explained that being human is first and foremost
a way of connecting with other living beings and that to destabilize this connection puts
the human being at risk. For Shepard, the split between humans and the surrounding
living world is a purely artificial and ideological one – man is his environment and vice
versa. This is what he called ‘human ecology’. As he writes: ‘Putting the environment
“out there” external to us has made it invisible’ (Shepard, 1998 [1973]: xxvi). Even if
he has visibly not read von Uexküll, Shepard’s originality is to consider that the ques-
tion of human ecology belongs to the sphere of cognitive eco-biosemiotics rather than
biological ecology strictly speaking. For Shepard, the disappearance of species is not a
purely biological phenomenon but a complex process that deeply alters what it means
to be human.

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Tim Ingold’s anthropology of lines

A semiotic ecology does not grow up in a wasteland, and there are many more resources
for conceptualizing it than one might initially have thought. It can, for instance, be
fuelled by the anthropology of lines as conceived by Tim Ingold,4 an anthropology of
lines that could just as well be a zoology or a botany of lines. For this British anthro-
pologist, all living beings are ultimately made up of intermingled lines that do not stop
at the knots formed by each organism.5 Ingold’s conception of the living world advo-
cates an ecological vision no longer defined as the study of ecosystems but as the study
of how living beings form into ecosystems and how these ecosystems are made material
through differentiated biological individuals. In this way of thinking, living beings do
not adapt to pre-existing ecosystems but are themselves an active part of the relevant
ecosystem. Ingold’s weaving metaphor enables a fine-grained graduation of individu-
als’ proximity to each other in both an inter- and an intra-specific perspective. Thanks
to such a metaphor, I can understand that my relations with myself and with those clos-
est to me already partake of ecology. Through such a metaphor, I can conceive that
ecology also has to do with my relations with all living beings on earth and not only
with those I really or potentially encounter in a given ecosystem. This ecology of mean-
ings is much more rich and complex than an ecology dealing uniquely with food chains,
reproduction strategies and territory management.

Biodiversity and semiosphere

The notion of ‘species conservation’ is usually understood in an overly restrictive sense,
considered as primarily a question of preserving species. The authors discussed above
help us understand that it is not only the species themselves but the semiospheres induced
by these species and the role these play in species dynamics that are destroyed (or at least
considerably weakened) by loss of biodiversity, in other words the spaces of meaning in
which living species can live together. Above and beyond the usual notions of scientific
ecology, the conservation of species needs to take into account the spaces of meaning
through which the individuals of each of the concerned species (human or not) establish
their relationship with the world and consequently organize their lives. Explicitation of
the significance of these spaces of meaning that do not fit into the usual categories
through which biologists attempt to apprehend the nature of intelligence and the living
world should lead us to develop a more complex vision of what it means for a living
being to live with all of the other living beings.6 We need to understand what makes it
possible to maintain the coherence of the living world and to what extent even the most
primitive living being is intrinsically concerned by what happens to other living beings
(an agent is ‘concerned’ by something when this something takes on importance for the
agent). This kind of effort supposes that we have the capacities to conceive of other
living beings as something other than more-or-less complex machines.7 It is important in
this regard to rethink the power of the imagination, to reconceptualize its place in life
and to do this in a phylogenetic, semiotic and cultural perspective. It is also important
to understand why we find it so difficult to do this and why we are so slow to make a
satisfactory account of it.

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Lestel 311

Importance of the imagination

Focusing on interpreting the living world sensitizes us to a few of its aspects that have
until now been undeservedly neglected, in particular the imagination, which plays a cru-
cial role here. The imagination is one of the most remarkable competences of living
beings, but also one that to date has been the most underrated. Even when it has been
taken into account, an attempt has been made to make it exclusive to humans, with a few
rare exceptions. Yet we could consider that every living being embodies a fundamental
aspect of the imagination of living beings and that, far from being an exception, humans
too participate fully in this dynamic, without exercising the slightest monopoly; humans
merely do this with original cultural means that are exclusively theirs.8 The problem of
the imagination, which applies to all living beings, increases in pertinence in the case of
modern humans owing to their capacities for transforming the world and other living
beings; and the imagination plays a major role in the relations we entertain with the
animals that share our world.9

The phylogenetic legacy of our imagination

The limitations of the human imagination, but also some of its most remarkable exten-
sions, have first of all to do with its basis in phylogenesis.10 To consider the imagination
as a purely cognitive competence does not do it justice. Imagination is a collective activity
resting largely on the space of possibles revealed to us by the species with which we
share our life. When we exterminate these cohabiting species, we reduce our imagination
dramatically and drastically limit our existential potential to become constantly actual-
ized human beings. Each species that disappears is a part of our imagination amputated
perhaps permanently and irreversibly. To my knowledge, Paul Shepard is the only
thinker to have had such an intuition, in particular when he evokes the notion of ‘minding
animal’, an animal that thinks, that makes others think, an animal that thinks while mak-
ing others think.11 For Shepard, human beings have potential competences that can be
activated in certain configurations with certain animals. The disappearance of these ani-
mals entails ipso facto a reduction of all the possibles to which we can one day accede.
We considerably impoverish our capacity to make sense of not only the living world but
of our life itself when we reduce the diversity of the living beings that can act as semiotic
and cognitive engines. In other terms, today’s collapse of biodiversity is not only a bio-
logical catastrophe that will prevent finding new medicines (Bœuf, 2007), it is also, and
perhaps above all, an existential catastrophe that substantially reduces the extent and
complexity of our imagination and consequently of our humanity itself. But the problems
connected with the interface between our imagination and the collapse of biodiversity
are tied to certain features of our culture.

A pathological imagination that clouds our perception of living beings

A pathological imagination plays an important role in the withering of our capacity to
share our lives with those of other living beings and in the loss of biodiversity that is one
of its most tragic consequences. First of all, by being incapable of truly thinking through

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312 Social Science Information 52(2)

the consequences of our acts, as EO Wilson understood it; but also by orienting our
preferences in a debatable direction. Günter Anders was not the first to recognize the
importance of the imagination in our ethical behaviors, but it was he who gave it a col-
oration adapted to contemporary problems.12 For Anders, the absence of imagination
should be viewed as a perceptual handicap. To be able to see what there is to see demands
sufficient imagination (Anders, 2008 [1995]: 81–82). Education of the imagination, he
writes, is even the main task to which we must devote our attention today (Anders, 2008
[1995]: 143). Moreover, it would be all too easy to consider that only superficial indi-
viduals lack the necessary imagination to cope with the problem of loss of biodiversity.
In their great majority even the experts are blind to the biosemiotic dimension of the
catastrophe playing out before our eyes, and themselves have a limited practical imag-
ination, powerless to make the political class understand the urgency of the situation and
the scale of the disaster.

A pathological imagination that blinds us to living things

The situation is even grimmer, in the sense that the limitations of our imagination lead
us not only to not see but also to see badly. For it is precisely the role of the imagination
to bring us to ask if emergent artificial animal life may not threaten the environment by
making us prefer animalized artifacts to real animals, precisely because the first are
closer to the representations of our imagination than the second. There, too, Günter
Anders could be writing today; he was in effect no doubt the first to have intuited such
an intellectual perversion with his notion of ‘Promethean shame’ (Anders, 2002 [1956]),
in other words the shame a human feels that he was ‘born and becomes’ rather than
‘having been manufactured’. It is the shame of the human being who assesses the gap
between the imperfection of the biological human and the perfection of the machines he
has manufactured.

Man-made animals more real than non-made animals

The version of Promethean shame that particularly interests me is not discussed by
Anders; this is the conviction that an animalized artifact is more convincing than an
authentic animal. Sherry Turkle was the first to have observed this curious phenomenon
– or more accurately the first to have described it, in the case of Galapagos tortoises
(Turkle, 2006). On the occasion of a trip to Orlando’s Disneyworld with her young teen-
age daughter they visited the real zoo there, and her daughter asked why they had used
real tortoises when robotic tortoises look more real! The other teenagers present reacted
similarly. A growing number of humans no longer have any direct contact with a living
animal species and they now know animals only through what they see on television,
where the latter are always ‘performing’, doing interesting things, since it is only those
moments that have been selected. As a result, the ‘real’ animal becomes obviously
extremely disappointing – since it does not even act like it does on TV! In the end, it is
not so surprising that children or teenagers find animalized machines more convincing
and it is hard to simply shrug this away. Gary Paul Nabhan, who carried out some dis-
turbing studies with native populations in the American Southwest, noted that more than

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Lestel 313

50 percent of the children interviewed had never spent more than half an hour in a natural
environment and that a very large number had never played with things from nature (a
tree leaf, bird’s feather, small bones found on the ground, etc.) or had never collected
them (Nabhan, 1995; Nabhan & St Antoine, 1993). Moreover the number of words
referring to natural phenomena, the names of species, etc., used by people has fallen
dramatically in recent generations. The problem of a massive impoverishment of our
relationship with nature is not only true of fragile populations but of the rising generations
as a whole.13

The existential and cultural issues at stake in the

collapse of biodiversity
The powerlessness of our imagination to apprehend the collapse of biodiversity is not
only a major biological catastrophe but also a profound crisis in the capacity to share
existence, which constitutes a problem heretofore largely neglected despite its funda-
mental importance. Our imagination depends in large part on the room given it by the
culture in which we live, and to make of the imagination an essentially psychological
phenomenon is highly reductionist. Ernst Bloch was no doubt one of the contemporary
philosophers most sensitive to this aspect of our times, and he perceived with exemplary
lucidity that the quality of our existence depends to a great extent on the richness of our

A simplistic view of living things

The atrophied Western imagination when it comes to living beings is no accident nor
does not come as a surprise. On the contrary, Western culture has from the start discred-
ited complex views of living beings, stressing instead the need to conceive of a living
being as belonging to an impoverished category devoid of any real existential experi-
ence, and cut off, to boot, from all experience with other living beings. It has considered
that animals can no doubt be complex, but has persisted in thinking such complexity is
not comparable with that of human beings.15 It has remained convinced that animals
share no aspect of life with other living beings outside of fairly superficial relations such
as that of prey/predator, social hierarchy, territorial defense, seduction of a sexual part-
ner or relations between young and adults. Only humans have been credited with authen-
tic sociability, that is to say with a shared life that is not limited to simple functional
relations. As for plants or mushrooms, they have always been considered so insignifi-
cant that they have rarely been discussed; for most Western thinkers, they simply do not
exist.16 And yet it would be a mistake to consider that this expressed simple indifference
to nature; traditionally the Western elite has felt a veritable hatred for it.17

Hatred of nature
Western culture has always entertained a complicated relationship with nature, which has
constantly posed a major problem for its elites. No culture has completely assimilated

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314 Social Science Information 52(2)

humans to other animals, but from the time of its origins in Greece, Western culture has
gone further than any other in its hatred for nature and in its desire radically to declare
its independence. Very early on, in effect, Western elites defined humans as opposed to
nature, before emptying the latter of all substance, that is of all intelligence, and instru-
mentalizing it as they wished. Even though all peasant societies have perceived wild
animals with a suspicion tinged with fear, Westerners have reached summits unattained
anywhere else – in fact one could characterize Western culture as a super-peasant culture,
a pathologically peasant culture.18
Greek mythology was already populated with animals, although a myth like that of
Prometheus is highly ambivalent in this regard since it expresses the conviction that man
is a victim with respect to the other animals and that he therefore has a legitimate score
to settle. Greek philosophers, like Aristotle for example, resolutely opposed man to ani-
mal, and Christianity accentuated this zoophobic tendency by identifying the body as the
animal part of man and making its rejection a moral priority. Despite many eminently
positive aspects, Renaissance humanism opened a period especially hostile to animality.
Even as it sought to bring all humankind together, it underscored the hygienic barrier
separating humans and animals, and made it stricter than ever. Was it really necessary to
erect an ideological war machine against animals in order to counter the scandal of
human hierarchies? I doubt it. European humanism turned man in upon himself and gave
him a monopoly on morality: only humans have a moral sense and only humans are the
object of moral attention on the part of other humans. To this way of thinking, man is not
an animal that is different; he is no longer an animal at all.
French Cartesianism sharpened the human/animal opposition by drawing an
ontological19 connection between animals and machines. Retrospectively the beast-
machine thesis constitutes a disgrace by setting reason against living beings and linking
the animal to the machine in order to oppose him to man. The detour via the machine
lastingly and deeply perverts the question of the status of animals in the West and goes
hand in hand with the degradation that is industrial farming and predatory experimenta-
tion on animals: why ever should one care about the well-being of machines? The 17th-
century French philosopher and priest Malebranche played an important role in this
sordid story by denying that animals had feelings, whereas Descartes remained vague.
Determining the absence of feeling in animals on the grounds of the distinction between
soul and body, he explained in the fourth book of La Recherche de la Vérité that, since
animals do not sin, they cannot suffer. Having no feelings they therefore lack conscious-
ness. Hence the fundamental correlate of the beast-machine thesis: if the animal is a
machine, man can do with it whatever he pleases. For Malebranche, Descartes’ thesis of
the beast-machine makes it legitimate to place animals outside the sphere of ethics.
Furthermore, the philosopher-priest strengthened his reasoning by coupling this ethical
premise with a psychological premise concerning the illusion of the human senses:
someone who is moved by an animal’s suffering, he explains, is simply deceived by
his senses.20
When all is said and done, the beast-machine thesis appears to be less the cause than
the expression of a perverted relationship to the animal world running through Western
history as a whole. We see a truly sadistic dimension in the European relation to animals,
which has until now received little study. The massacre and torture of animals are

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Lestel 315

constants singularly minimized in Western history. One of those who have understood
this the best is indisputably John Ray, who was a famous naturalist with the 17th-century
Royal Society, a much-admired representative of Cambridge’s Platonic school and one
of those who enabled Linneaus and Jussieu to establish their classifications of plants and
insects. This eminent thinker wrote a book, published in 1691, entitled Wisdom of God
Manifested in the Works of the Creation, in which he mounted a fairly harsh attack on a
Cartesianism driven by a tyrannical reason that wholly denies the pertinence of feelings.
He underscored in particular and with remarkable acumen that, if animals were really
machines, they would not be tortured so often and no one would for one minute imagine
that they were capable of suffering. Indeed, has anyone ever seen someone be cruel to a
machine? John Ray demonstrated very simply the monstrous perversity of Malebranche,
who justified cruelty to animals by taking as the premise of his reasoning that which
should be its logical conclusion. In effect, it is not because animals are machines that
they do not suffer, but because one wants to make them suffer there is every reason to
consider them as machines.

Machinization of animals and animalization of artifacts

Over the second half of the 20th century, this same Western culture went through a pro-
cess that, to my mind, has not received enough attention: having convinced itself that
animals were nothing but more or less complex machines, and having conceived hybrid
installations that reduced animals to cogs in factory farms, it set about developing, with
the help of cybernetics, animalized artifacts – in other words machines that not only
behaved like animals, but which could be psychologically taken for animals. This trend
turned out to be correlated with a dynamic that gave this complex neutralization of nature
a very particular connotation: global population has massively urbanized, since over half
of the world’s population now lives in cities. The classic peasant did not like nature, but
the post-peasant urban dweller no longer has any direct knowledge of it at all, which
leads him easily and unquestioningly to accept that the artificial nature with which he
increasingly deals is in the end more natural than nature itself. This sort of mental self-
intoxication is all the more effective when this artificial nature, which is no longer a
controlled nature but a substitute nature, can be totally manipulated at will.

Nature 2.0
Nature 2.0 is a peasant’s ultimate dream. This is a highly impoverished view of nature
as subordinated, instrumentalized and manipulated. For the peasant, the good kind of
nature is not one that acts as a partner in producing multiple meanings and resources
with which one is constantly obliged to compromise, but a nature that is submissive and
productive. Nature is forcibly enslaved through hybridization, campaigns to eradicate
plants and animals that are or are assumed to be noxious, and through ideological, often
religious, discourses that grant humans absolute supremacy over other living beings.21
Nature 2.0, which appears at the end of the 20th century, adopts this stance but radical-
izes its expression through genetic manipulation, exo-hybridization22 and the creation of
wholly artificial ecosystems.23 This conception of nature forgets that other-than-humans

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are perhaps not only an opposite but those with which humans share their lives and
whose disappearance would ipso facto entail that of humans, thus giving way to post-
humans who would prefer to share their lives with artifacts rather than with animals or
plants.24 And yet nature is not only a space containing resources and devoid of any value
of its own on which humans can draw at will and free of charge; it is a partnership of
communities with which humans, to be fully human, must share their lives. Within this
perspective, the ecological crisis we are experiencing today is far from being an unex-
pected consequence of Western technical development; on the contrary: ‘the end of
nature’ is the most shocking outcome of an ideology of continual material progress, and
to attempt to resolve this crisis without stepping outside Western culture as it has been
developing for several centuries is a sheer absurdity, which merely has the pathetic
advantage of avoiding what is no doubt one of the fundamental philosophical questions
of the 21st century: how can a culture step outside itself and invent itself anew and dif-
ferently? Naturally I do not claim to have an answer to such a question, but I can at least
suggest that it cannot do this without radically redefining what it should understand by
‘ecology’. Not to dwell on this point, I will simply say that ‘ecology’ as it is construed
in universities today is not the solution to the major crisis humanity is traversing in its
relations with nature (whatever one means by the term); it is part and parcel of the prob-
lem. In other words, Western culture and its offshoots have managed to put forward as a
remedy a poison capable of definitively neutralizing the patient. This is yet one more
expression of the deeply perverse and suicidal face of a toxic culture that has managed
to bring about the original and improbable marriage of unequalled instrumental reason
and an even greater intellectual unreason.25

The cultural structures of ecology

The present situation calls for a fairly radical rethinking of what ecology is, refusing the
primacy of the biological over the cultural and the highly problematic opposition
between a scientific ecology (which would come under biology) and a political ecology
(which would come under the social sciences). Ecology cannot be reduced to either.
The collapse of biodiversity is as much a cultural tragedy as it is a biological catastro-
phe, and this extreme crisis is not only the outcome of the material consequences of loss
of diversity but also of the consequent cultural withering. To be sure, I am not claiming
that biologists are wasting their time taking an interest in ecology; I am instead alerting
social scientists to a problem of which they are conscious in only a very marginal and
incredibly simplified manner. The destruction of our natural ecosystems means not only
the appearance of famines, of uncontrolled and therefore violent population move-
ments, etc., but also a major impoverishment of what it means to be human, and no
doubt also of what it means to be an animal.
In this sense, any classical approach to ecology comes up against two major difficul-
ties. The first is, grosso modo, reducing ecology to a matter of biochemical regulation.
Such a process, which is consistent with Western science-bound ideology,26 completely
neglects the semiotic, ontological and existential dimensions of ecology, and considers,
without the slightest justification, that ecology is a discipline that must always be prac-
ticed from a third-person point of view – for example, in the form of general propositions

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Lestel 317

such as ‘Galapagos tortoises are endangered’. The second difficulty is assessing whether
all of the actors that should be taken into consideration are effectively considered. This
approach becomes problematic as soon as one accepts that ecology should be addressed
from the first-person viewpoint or from the second-person viewpoint; that is to say, that
a healthy ecosystem ensures not only the elementary survival of its inhabitants but also
fulfills their semiotic, psychological and existential needs. Living in an ecosystem is not
simply a matter of exchanging energies so as to arrive at an equilibrium, but also of
establishing a space of meaning together with all those beings with which we share our
lives in order to give meaning to life, to find fulfillment and to achieve satisfying psychic
balances. In other words, ecology should not be concerned only with survival but also
with a fulfilled life, which is necessarily a life shared with other agents. We must break
with autistic conceptions of ecology, which still largely prevail. The term autistic may
come as a surprise for it is usually reserved for individual mental pathologies. But
Western culture has managed to collectivize, if I may be so bold, an individual pathology
and turn it into a cultural trait by considering that living beings communicate with each
other only on a superficial level; that human beings themselves are incapable of com-
municating with other living beings not because humans have cognitive problems but
because there is no such thing as true communication; and that living beings are driven
only by primitive and conflicting interests that vie blindly with each other and where any
significant agreement is excluded a priori. Even worse, in the culture of Western elites,
whoever speaks of communication with any kind of non-human being is regarded as a
crackpot. Hence the necessity of developing a first-person (or second-person) ecology as
a complement to a more classic third-person ecology.

First-person ecology
Such a stance would lead us to make a fairly radical change in our conception of ecology,
to give up the idea that ecology is only the science of regulating ecosystems and to fully
accept that it is also an art of shared living and the (more or less fraught) coexistence
of viewpoints and personal perspectives, and that the latter can differ deeply from one to
the other.
All of the agents involved in the dynamic of an ecosystem have a point of view with
which the others must deal – whatever their ontology. It is not necessary to know what
matters to an agent from the agent’s point of view, but it is important to realize that the
agent has a point of view, and that I will not be able to impose my own unilaterally. On
the contrary, I myself will have to make compromises, alliances and pacts with what
can rapidly be characterized as other-than-human viewpoints in order to establish my
own existence, even if I am also perfectly aware that it is no doubt an illusion to seek
in these non-human partners what a psychology as primitive as our own will want
to find.
Such a perspective is fairly close to that of the Amazonian Indians described by the
Brazilian anthropologist, Viveiros de Castro, and which he generalizes to numerous
hunter-gatherer peoples the world over. For these peoples, animals and spirits have their
own perception of the world: the animal or the spirit sees itself as human and the others
as animals. The difference is thus not between humans and animals, but is relative and

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318 Social Science Information 52(2)

depends on the viewpoint of the subject under consideration. Animals thus see in the
same way as humans, but what they see is different because their bodies are different.

Who is part of our ecosystems?

It is not because it is impossible for me to determine all those who might share my exist-
ence that I cannot try to do it at least in part. One strong but implicit hypothesis of
contemporary scientific ecology is to think that all actors that play a significant role in
an ecosystem can immediately be identified by an observer outside the ecosystem, that
all these actors belong to a single ontological class (that of biological living beings) and
that a biologist is therefore in the best position to draw up an inventory. An anthropolo-
gist interested in Western culture will not fail to be intrigued by such a certainty, which
is all the more fragile for never having been supported with serious arguments. It is an
article of faith and not an empirical or experimental finding, and even less the logical
consequence of a rigorous demonstration.
Such a simplistic ecological view is a peculiarity of Western culture and very recent
as well.27 In all other cultures,28 a very large number of other-than-human agents share
humans’ ecosystems, and cannot be assimilated to the natural agents on the lists drawn
up by scientific ecologists. Among them we find in particular those disembodied agents
that, as an initial approximation, we can call ‘spirits’, a generic term that is most unsat-
isfactory because it is too vague; we use it here only because we do not have up-to-date
intellectual tools29 with which to refer to them and to characterize them in a more sat-
isfactory manner. Contrary to a positivist belief widely shared in scientific circles, it is
hard to consider that what one has difficulty knowing and, even more, measuring
should be held not to exist. Contemporary Western intellectuals are alone in claiming
never to encounter these disembodied agents,30 and this kind of singularity needs to be
argued more seriously than by a vague denial evoking some kind of intellectual imma-
turity. When, for example, a Japanese person is convinced he shares his territory with
kami, who must constantly be taken into consideration when acting, these are indisput-
ably part of his ecosystem, and I have no cause to doubt this conviction or its legiti-
macy, short of adopting a stance that smacks of colonialism (I know better than this
Japanese person what is important to him), scientism (nothing exists outside of what
science can demonstrate) and ethnocentrism (the Western materialist view of the world
is the only right one).
Two positions and only two have, in the end, a minimum of pertinence. First a weak
position which considers that the West has no say over what other people believe, but
that the West must at least take these beliefs into account in the organization of their
worlds. For these peoples, an ecosystem includes spirits, and preserving these ecosys-
tems also means these ‘spirits’ must be preserved. And then a strong position, which
considers that it is these non-Western peoples who have something to teach us and that
to scorn belief in ‘spirits’ is a mistake that has turned out to be costly and which it is time
to reconsider. It should be stressed that, in a constructivist perspective (see James, 2003
[1912]), admitting the reality of ‘spirits’ does not necessarily mean I can prove their
existence, in the modern scientific sense of the term, or even that they are ‘real’. Whether

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Lestel 319

or not ‘spirits’ exist is not the question; all that matters is that the peoples concerned
believe they exist and act accordingly. The fact that belief in these ‘spirits’ affects my
acting is enough to ascribe them reality (which is not the same thing as authenticity) and
to take them seriously, at least from an anthropological point of view but also from the
standpoint of philosophy. Whatever position we adopt, in the present state of affairs the
arrogant attitude of the West toward this subject is a return of neo-colonial attitudes that
is all the more shameful for being unacknowledged.

Post-colonial thinking
The present ecological crisis is a cultural problem rooted in the impasse of Western
thinking and the deadly ideology bred by it – namely a highly simplistic worldview
(based on the idea of a never-ending technological progress free of harmful side effects)31
coupled with an instrumental power unequalled in human history, culminating in our
nuclear capacity, biotechnologies and cognitive technologies, and in a superiority com-
plex all the more pernicious because it is not easily expressed. Of course Westerners are
not the only ones to have adopted practices leading to ecological catastrophe (as a num-
ber of authors have shown, e.g. Diamond, 2005), but only Westerners have arrived at a
global ecological crisis.
One way a Westerner can manage these handicaps is to look a little less condescend-
ingly on different systems of thought, those that on the contrary pay fundamental atten-
tion to relations with the environment.32 Contemporary Western history is shot through
with alternative currents of thought that have always remained in the minority – e.g.
panpsychism – but which have never been completely eliminated in spite of the disdain
of intellectuals close to the powers that be, repeated attempts at disqualification and
marginalization (see Skrbina, 2005), and the propensity of academia to mobilize
against them.
In this context, an open mind to non-Western ways of thinking is both a political
challenge and an intellectual promise. A political challenge because such an approach
is awkward for the worldview advocated by intellectuals in power and those who emu-
late them; an intellectual promise because acknowledging the actual relevance of a
system of thought that has in the end preserved all that has been destroyed by several
centuries of European positivism and humanism is of inestimable value today. To this
must no doubt be added a certain moral satisfaction, that of living at a time when
worldviews hitherto scorned by the dominant powers have the distinct possibility of
coming into their own.
The recent development of a postcolonial anthropology that calls into question the
paternalistic posture of the lordly scientist surveying the beliefs and practices of the peo-
ples he studies lends increased pertinence to worldviews close to the native thought
systems some anthropologists are attempting to rehabilitate today. But it is not only a
matter of giving the floor to those who have been deprived of the right to speak, as
Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak (1987) so aptly puts it; these different (to use the most neu-
tral term possible) voices are found in some of the most technologically advanced
cultures, like Japan, as I mentioned above.

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320 Social Science Information 52(2)

From an anthropological point of view, Western culture is an object of curiosity; it is no
doubt the first time in the history of humankind that a major culture recognizes only
biological agents as existing, denying the importance of non-human agents and refusing
to understand that it is in the nature of human existence to share life with other intelligent
beings – whatever they may be: animals, plants, gods, spirits, etc. – for any purpose other
than to derive some material gain. The wake-up call from most biologists who are dis-
tressed by the loss of biodiversity because it entails loss of the possibility to find future
drugs is characteristic of this point of view. Such ‘intellectual monotheism’, i.e. recog-
nizing a single form of intelligence and worshipping it alone, has dramatic practical
consequences that will lead, in the end, to the suicide of humankind and the eradication
of most kinds of life on earth. After all, if man is alone, he can do what he wants without
consideration of those that do not exist.
One way of changing our way of seeing the world is to address the issue of loss of
biodiversity from an unusual semiotic and cultural standpoint, defining ecology as the art
of heterogeneous subjectivities sharing life in hybrid communities, rather than seeing it
as the study of the distribution of energies in biochemical ecosystems in equilibrium.
Such a perspective is resolutely existential and assigns a central role to the sharing of
meaning, interests and feelings among heterogeneous agents; the first is a perspective
that characterizes the hybrid communities discussed in Lestel (1996a), whereas the sec-
ond is a physical perspective content with energy transfers and balanced equilibriums.
The collapse of biodiversity resulting from the hatred of the animal world cultivated by
Western humanism has led to the massive impoverishment of humankind – psychological,
intellectual, moral and spiritual. Loss of biodiversity leads to a dramatic narrowing of the
semiosphere on earth and entails a problematic drying up of the very substance of human-
kind, which is woven into the texture of all living beings. The problem is that we are not
even aware of what we are losing with the collapse of biodiversity because we approach
the question with a maimed imagination and as a consequence we have a truncated rep-
resentation of the role of other living beings in the constitution not of what we are but
especially of who we are. Even worse, our dramatically impoverished imagination is
becoming an increasingly pathological imagination that drives us to confuse living beings
with poor substitutes that show only the symptoms of being alive instead of having the
fundamental psychic properties of life. These illusions are as effective as they are because
we have conceived them in order to deceive ourselves.34 From an evolutionist viewpoint,
one may therefore wonder if an explosive mixture of intelligence and stupidity might not
be the human equivalent of the anatomical features of certain animals that enabled them
to adapt for a time before leading to their extinction. Clearly I do not advocate that we
reject these artifacts: on the contrary, we must progressively learn to find a place for them
within our hybrid communities. But we must take them for what they are (new other-than-
human agents with which we must increasingly find a way to work) and not for what they
are not (causal equivalents of semiotic living systems).
Defending an ecology that is both non mechanistic and open to non-embodied agents
leads to interesting perspectives for the development of what could be a fundamental
anthropology of Western culture, palpably different from a symmetrical anthropology that

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Lestel 321

acknowledges the ideas of anthropologists from cultures that were only recently the object
of traditional anthropological discourses. From this standpoint, one could say that the
increasing Western concern for the animal kingdom is the forerunner of another and
deeper upheaval that would lead to rediscovering the full richness of our ecosystems and
those non-embodied entities35 with which we must learn to live, if indeed we are to live.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.

  1 It is clearly a bit hasty to speak of ‘Western culture’ in general, as though it were uniform
throughout, and Tim Ingold (2002[1994]: xiii) rightly warns us against such a temptation to
uniformize, but we can nevertheless consider that any culture has some strong tendencies that
characterize it. I would like to thank Gabriela Mela for having called my attention to Ingold’s
  2 Jesper Hoffmeyer (1996). I discussed this intriguing statement in Lestel (2012: 93–95). More
generally this collection measures the importance of Hoffmeyer’s work.
 3 An academic journal, Biosemiotics, published by Springer Verlag, is for instance today
entirely devoted to biosemiotics.
 4 He discussed this anthropology in a book (Ingold, 2007) before further defining certain
aspects in a later article (Ingold, 2009; see also Ingold, 2002[1994]).
  5 The Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari suggests a very interesting reading of Leibniz’s
Monadologie, which leads to a worldview astonishingly close to Ingold’s (Cacciari,
1990[1985]: 283–303).
  6 It is symptomatic that an approach like that of Donna Haraway and her followers to ‘compan-
ion species’ completely ignores questions of biodiversity.
  7 In Lestel (2010) I showed why considering a living being as a machine simply makes no
sense, unless one were to invent a totally imaginary kind of engineering.
  8 In this respect it seems beneficial to meditate on what Stephen J Gould has to say about the
impossibility of understanding the functionality of Burgess shale fossils.
  9 Erica Fudge (2008: esp. 2–3) calls attention to the importance of imagination in our relations
with pets.
10 One of the most fascinating areas of contemporary paleoanthropology and prehistory concerns
precisely this aspect in that they look at the capacities of Neanderthals’ cultural imagination,
in particular through their burials and their artistic or decorative practices. But ethology is no
laggard, whether it comes to the capacities of animals to stage activities (pretend play), the
drawing abilities of chimpanzees first investigated by Desmond Morris or musical imagina-
tion in certain birds – and here we must cite the pioneering work of Hollis Taylor.
11 Shepard (1978: 249). A large part of the book is devoted to a more or less explicit discussion
of this question.
12 To be rigorous, we would need to discuss the Frankfurt school as well and in particular
Adorno, who addressed the question of the cultural narrowing of the imagination. This view-
point is nicely summed up by Fredric Jameson, who judges that ‘our imaginations are hos-
tages of our mode of production’ (Jameson, 2005: 17).
13 As early as 1977, Shepard wondered: ‘What happens to the child who misses Nature? In a
cement or desertified home range without creatures, what is the ontogenetic outcome? …
Madness is the kindest word for such a world’ (Shepard, 1996: 91–92).

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322 Social Science Information 52(2)

14 A perception to which he devoted his major work (Bloch, 1991 [1959]).

15 About which Florence Burgat (2006: 30) rightly wrote that philosophy had failed in its task.
16 With a few notable exceptions like Gustav Theodor Fechner, in particular in his 1848 book,
Nanna oder über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen, which met with huge popular success
and … biting criticism from the intellectuals of the time. Today Fechner is known as the
father of the narrowest approach to experimental psychology and discoverer of action poten-
tials, which is an excessively simplistic view of his genius. It should be remembered that
William James considered Fechner to be one of the most important philosophers of the 19th
century and devoted the entire fourth lesson of his book on the pluralistic universe to him.
17 Lestel (2010b), which I summarize in the following paragraph.
18 Here we would need to come back and discuss in detail Paul Shepard’s analyses, in particular
those contained in his most recent book, Nature and Madness (1998).
19 An ontological connection is one that affects the nature of the things connected.
20 For example, in La Recherche de la Vérité, Book 4, Chapter 11 (1674–1675) Malebranche
qualifies in extremely derogatory terms those who refuse to bow to the evidence of reason
over that of experience: he invokes for instance ‘superficial minds with little capacity for
attention’. It would be interesting to explore the rhetoric of hatred for animals and of scorn for
those who defend them in the same way as contemporary philosophers like Theodor Adorno
or Jean-Pierre Faye have studied the Nazis’ rhetoric of hatred.
21 Lewis Mumford (1970), unfortunately largely forgotten today, is clearly the major author-
ity on this question. He was one of the first to develop the idea that the passage from the
Paleolithic to the Neolithic was not a major step toward progress, as most prehistorians
parrot, but an absolute catastrophe that led to generalized enslavement, permanent war,
the rise of state religions and ecological catastrophe. Nietzsche is still important, however,
in particular for his very modern treatment of religion and morality as sophisticated tech-
niques of control.
22 Exo-hybridization is the crossing of a biological organism with a technical system.
23 In Lestel (1996b), I showed the resulting axiomatic vision of nature, in particular with the rise
of Chris Langton’s Artificial Life. For a very astute treatment of this work, which seeks to
create life not only as it is but as it could be, see Helmreich (1998).
24 David More, Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Warwick are the major theoreticians of
the post-human state, which prefers to cozy up to machines rather than continue to share life
with other living beings.
25 A situation given one of its most subtle expressions by Günter Anders.
26 A scientistic approach to the world deems that any serious explanation should be based on
causal systems, eventually highly complex ones, and on causal systems alone.
27 The position I defend is noticeably different from the spiritualistic approaches to ecology
found, for instance, in Fox (1995), which stress the moral dimension of ecology and make
no reference to the problem that engages me here, namely: that our ecological thinking is
excessively rooted in contemporary Western culture and does not take into account a large
proportion of the agents that make up an ecosystem on the pretext that theirs is not a physical
28 If one were to be completely rigorous one would have to oppose the Western intellectual elites
to all other cultures.
29 This qualification alludes to the thinking of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,
which possessed an extraordinarily diverse range of concepts for discussing angels, dev-
ils, etc. If one does not want to come down on one side or the other, one can always read
the remarkable work of Frances Yates (1964, 1983) or ER Dodds (1952, 1965). The fact

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Lestel 323

that today’s intellectuals are no longer sensitive to the concept shows the extent of the rav-
ages inflicted on Western intellectual and academic circles by a primitive and materialistic
30 I introduce this important nuance because an anthropologist of Western culture will quickly
realize that a very large proportion of Westerners have encountered such agents. But the
majority of intellectuals prefer to make fun of the beliefs of these people, whom they regard
as gullible, rather than seriously endeavor to understand what is going on. This is not com-
pletely true, however, since the situation turns out to be much more complex for anyone who
takes the time to do some serious documentation. The psychiatrist John Edward Mack has
done remarkable work on ‘abductees’, the thousands of people who are convinced they have
been abducted by aliens. Two important remarks here: first, Mack did not detect any obvious
mental disorder in these people of all ages and conditions; second, following these studies,
Mack was dragged before an internal disciplinary commission at Harvard, which eventually
concluded that they could not find any fault with his work, from either a deontological or a
methodological standpoint. Another psychiatrist, Rick Strassman (2001), conducted the first
research, financed by the Food and Drug Administration, at the University of New Mexico
on the effects of DMT (dimethyltriptamine). He writes that a great number of people in the
course of this work reported an encounter with beings having a complex ontology.
31 Condorcet played a major role in establishing such an idea in the 18th century.
32 See for example the work of the Australian anthropologist Debbie Rose (1992) on the
Australian Aborigines’ extraordinarily complex system of ideas on ecology.
33 The notion of ‘symptoms of being alive’ was originally proposed in Lestel, Bec & Lemoigne
(1993: 595–603).
34 Disenchanted, Paul Shepard wrote: ‘No one doubts that we will have our plastic trees and
that they will do even better than seeming like the real thing, for they will be horribly real’
(Shepard, 1980: 134).
35 That these may be incompatible with physics could mean that our physics is not satisfactory,
rather than that these beings have no place in our lives. To mindlessly refer to physics in
defense of an autistic conception of humanity is not without its dangers: indeed contempo-
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Author biography
Dominique Lestel is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, Ecole Normale
Supérieure (Paris). He is also a senior researcher with the Archives Husserl (ENS/CNRS). His
work focuses on the ethics and ontology of hybrid communities: human/animal/machine. He spent
2012 as a visiting professor at Keio University (Tokyo). Recent publications include:L’Animal est
l’Avenir de l’Homme (Fayard, 2010); Apologie du Carnivore (Fayard, 2011); (with T. Bardini)
Journey to the End of Species (DisVoir, 2010); The Friends of My Friends (Columbia University
Press, 2013). Principal recently published articles include: What capabilities for the animal?
Biosemiotics 4, 2011: 83–102; Non-human artistic practices: A challenge to the social sciences of
the future, Social Science Information 50(3–4), 2011: 505–512; Eprouver la personne comme per-
sonnage, Annales de Philosophie de l’Université Libre de Bruxelles, Paris: Vrin, 2011, 123–137;
The biosemiotics and the phylogenesis of culture, in: Maran T, Martinelli D, Turovski A (eds)
Readings in Zoosemiotics, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011, 377–410; Why are we so fond of
monsters? Comparative Critical Studies 9(3), 2012: 259–269; Data, in: Favareau D, Cobley P, Kull
K (eds) A More Developed Sign: Advancing the work of Jesper Hoffmeyer, Tartu, Estonia:Tartu
University Press, 2012, 93–96; Could Beethoven have been a bird and could Picasso have been a
fish? Philosophical problems of an ethology of art, in: Watanabe S (ed.) Logic and Sensibility,
Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2012, 171–181. A special issue of the British philosophical journal
Angelaki will be devoted to his work in 2013 under the editorship of M Chrulew (Sydney),
J Bussolini (New York) and B Buchanan (Sudbury).

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