Sunday, May 31, 2020

An argument for sentient balls of moss.

Neerav Bhatt | CC 2.0 | Flickr

Last weekend, I shared a story on Facebook about a phenomenon called glacier mice. They're balls of moss -- often the only green things on a white expanse of glacier. And as researchers Sophie Gilbert and Tim Bartholomaus from the University of Idaho discovered, they move around. Synchronized, more or less. With no visible connection or means of propulsion. They don't scurry, mind you -- it's very slow movement. But they do move, and they move pretty much in concert with one another. 

I posted NPR's story about this discovery with the caption, "Maybe they're sentient." I knew folks would get a kick out of it. But really -- what if they're sentient?

What we're talking about here is animism, which the Oxford Dictionary online defines this way:

  1. The attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.
  2. The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.
With our glacier mice, what we're after is the first definition. And as a Pagan, soul is a more Christian term than I'm comfortable with, so let's replace soul with spirit. 

A lot of cultures around the world attribute spirit to a whole host of non-human things. In Animism: Respecting the Living World, author Graham Harvey recounts a conversation from the 1930s between anthropologist Irving Hallowell and an Ojibwe elder in Manitoba. Hallowell asked the older man,
"Are all the stones we see about us here alive?" Hallowell continues, "He reflected a long while and then replied, 'No! But some are."
The question came up, Harvey explains, because in Ojibwe and some other Algonquian languages, the word for rock is treated the same way you'd treat the word for a living person, with plural endings and such that are usually reserved for humans. Why is that? Because some rocks have been observed to move. On their own. With no visible means of propulsion.

That story reminded me that in Czech, there are different plural forms for animate masculine nouns and inanimate masculine nouns. Most animals, if the word for them is masculine, get the inanimate treatment -- but not dogs. Dogs get the animate masculine plural form. I expect anyone who has ever had a canine companion can understand why Czechs would think of them as people. (The word for cat in Czech, in case you're wondering, is a feminine noun, and the language doesn't differentiate between animate and inanimate in either the feminine or the neuter case. Which probably says something unpleasant about ancient Czechs, but I digress.)

Okay, dogs are animate. So are cats, dolphins, crows -- lots of animals. I think we can agree that they exhibit the ability to think, to plan, and to communicate. Just because we can't always understand what they're trying to say to us (an idea that has birthed ten thousand memes), it doesn't mean they're incapable of communicating. And they're probably better at communicating with their own species than they are with us. Right? So animals have agency -- they can act independently and make choices of their own free will.

What about bugs? Are they animate? Of course -- probably more animate than we'd like for them to be. Do they have agency? I think so, within certain parameters. A bee might be programmed to make honey for its queen, but the queen doesn't dictate which flower it visits today. A spider has sufficient free will to pick a lousy place for its web. Ants have a whole social hierarchy -- they send out scouts to look for food sources. And when they find one, they go back to their anthill and communicate the information to their fellow ants. But how do they get the word out? They can't talk.

Or maybe they can, but it's in a language we humans can't understand.

I'm reminded of Tolkien's Ents. They lived a long time and talked very slowly, and their own language was nearly impossible for humans to speak. Granted, Ents are fictional. But it wasn't that long ago that we figured out whales can talk to one another, and we don't understand their language, either (except in Star Trek IV, and even then it took some doing).

In The Wakeful World, philosopher Emma Restall Orr discusses the real-life trees that grow on Earth. She observes that a tree recognizes the resources available to it -- sunlight or shade, water, other trees nearby -- and adapts itself to them. It recognizes the seasons and understands what it is meant to do in each one. Just because we humans don't recognize all that activity as the sort of conscious thought we're used to, it doesn't mean it's not happening. And just because we don't understand the language of trees, it doesn't mean they don't have one.

Maybe rocks have a language of their own, too. Maybe it's so slow and moves so deeply that humans can never perceive it. If so, that's not the rocks' fault -- it's our fault for assuming that any language we can't perceive doesn't exist, and that any mode of thinking that isn't exactly like ours doesn't count.

The more I think about it, the more I disagree with the definition of animism that I quoted at the top of this post. Even changing soul to spirit doesn't fix it. Animism doesn't have anything to do with whether a chunk of God or spirit resides in each human or rock or tree -- or glacial mouse -- but with whether each of these things deserves to be recognized as a sentient being. Or, if that's too big a leap for you, whether each of these things might be a sentient being -- and then, erring on the side of caution, treating them as if they are.

Once you get to that point, environmentalism becomes a whole new ballgame.

These moments of sentient blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Wash your hands! Wear a mask!

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