When I met Andreas Weber ten years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism and conventional biology. Only later did I realize how much his thinking about living biological organisms has to say about the commons. Andreas is a theoretical biologist and ecophilosopher based in Berlin, Germany, who proposes that science study a mostly unexplained and radical phenomenon -- aliveness!
Andreas is my guest on the latest episode (#12) of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast this month. It’s a provocative 45-minute conversation that may have you re-considering some the nature of life, biological processes, and evolution.
Weber rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each fiercely competing with maximum efficiency to be the fittest in the laissez-faire market known as “nature.” Instead, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently creative and expressive in their struggles to thrive. This struggle is not just about competition, but about symbiotic, enduring cooperation.
This re-framing of the evolution story not only forces us to rethink how life emerges and evolves, but how our entrenched categories of thought about the political economy – nature as the template for our nasty, brutish free-market economy – is simply wrong.
For Weber, life and evolution cannot really be discussed without talking about the “subjectivity” and creative agency of all living organisms. That’s because life is not a collection of fighting machines; it’s a dynamic web of living organisms engaged in a creative drama of interdependency. The heart of the evolutionary drama, Weber insists, is the quest of all living systems to express what they feel and experience, and in so doing, adapt to the world and change it.
If I may crudely summarize Andreas’ thinking in a sentence or two: relationality, aliveness, subjectivity, and wholeness are central to the functioning of healthy living systems. But western, modern Enlightenment thinking (including conventional science) and capitalism don't get it. They are determined to disassemble wholes into their component parts, regard causation in fairly simple, mechanical terms, and to objectify life and assign it essential traits.
Andreas argues that this mindset is far too parochial. It helps explain why modern societies have failed to deal effectively with the pandemic, climate change, and other ecological crises. In a recent lengthy essay, Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity, https://in.boell.org/en/2020/09/10/sharing-life-ecopolitics-reciprocity Weber – taking a cue from indigenous cultures – explains how a “new animism” could help reorient our perspectives in constructive ways. We might begin to see that we need to enter into the relationality of the world as active participants, and not presume, as scientists do, that we can truly be neutral, “objective” observers.
Weber’s essay proposes animism as a strategy to readjust humanities’ relationship to earth – the shared life of human and nonhuman beings. He argues that “the insistence of western culture to rely only on a material science and to declare aliveness an illusion is a colonization of the living cosmos, which severs humans from their aliveness and destroys the lives of other beings – humans and non-humans alike.” Animistic cultures, then, can help guide us through a process of “western self-decolonization” and a realization of a new conceptualization of the Anthropocene, in which human and non-human agency working together contribute to “a fecund earth.”
Over the years, I’ve occasionally blogged about Weber’s books, such as Enlivenment: Toward a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics and Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science.
Check out this background to Weber's fresh approach to the study of life, or jump right into our provocative podcast conversation here.