Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe.

Fulda attempts to reject the post-Cartesian alternatives of mechanism and intellectualism, but when he tries to find a middle way, he ends up reinstating that dichotomy. He treats mechanism and intellectualism as poles of spectrum, so that rocks are still described in terms of mechanism and human agency still described in terms of intellectualism, but everything in between (like rabbits and bacteria) are more of a mixture of mechanistic automation and various intellectual capacities (kinds of adaptive and cognitive agency). So, the mechanist/intellectualist spectrum leaves the dichotomy intact and simply adds more intermediary cases. Aristotle wouldn’t let mechanism and intellectualism through the door, hence his rejection of atomists (Democritus) and physiologoi (e.g., Heraclitus, Thales) on the mechanistic hand, as well as Platonists and Pythagoreans, on the intellectualist hand. There’s a crypto-Cartesianism in Fulda’s neo-Aristotelianism. I would suggest that Whitehead or Jonas is more properly neo-Aristotelian.

Even without the crypto-Cartesian mechanism/intellectualism dichotomy, I always have some misgivings about this spectrum of agency that goes from simple to complex: matter to life (bacterial to animal) to human consciousness. It follows the Genesis 1 account of the days of Creation. It follows Aristotle. It’s basically the Axial Age account. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I just wonder why we’re telling the same story over and over and pretending each time like we’re surprised by our findings. Are we really escaping anthropocentrism with this spectrum of agency? Are we really accounting for bacterial agency on its own terms, or is this spectrum of agency just a thoroughly descriptive account of the innumerable intermediaries that Anthropos uses to build its wall to keep out the nonhuman, inhuman, ahuman, prehuman.

Fulda calls his proposal for a spectrum of natural agency (ranging from mechanical automata to intellectual cognition) an “ecological conception of agency.” I don’t know if this is really ecological. I would think that ecological awareness finds so many overlapping scales (thermodynamic, chemical, organismic, ecosystemic, Earth systemic) that we can’t figure out exactly where agency is or even if it is at all. What appears to be agency could be nothing but a manifestation of underlying mechanisms. Maybe it’s agency all the way up and down, and maybe not. Maybe I’m not even an agent, as all of my fancy capabilities could be reducible to antecedent causes and stochastic processes. So many maybes! To be is to be maybe, perhaps (Derrida: être as peut-être). The Cartesian certainty that a bacterium is mechanistic is based on the self-certain awareness of the Cogito, which is certain that it is aware of itself and not a merely extended substance.

In an ecological conception of agency, we might do better if, instead of attempting to prove that a bacterium has agency, we focus on our inability to prove that we humans are agents, which folds into our inability to know what (and if) agency is. Any line-up of agency, whether it’s from nothing to something (Descartes) or from less to more (Aristotle) gets a maybe. The space of that “maybe” could, perhaps, afford some opportunities for seeing a bacterium not simply as an agent and/or an automaton but as what it just appears to be, which is nothing other than may-being, an openness that we could call wholly other (tout autre). An ecological conception of agency would be riddled with compelling uncertainty, disclosing the spaciousness of the other, its may-being, its Levinasian face. We can find the spaciousness of a bacterium because that is just what there is, and it is what (or who?) we really are.

Fundamentally, there is just open space, the basic ground, what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness.

(Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Sanity We Are Born With, 85)
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3 responses to “Bacteria and Natural Agency

  • dmf

    “What appears to be agency could be nothing but a manifestation of underlying mechanisms”
    yes that’s right if you include the affordances/resistances of the context with/in which the organism is acting, so if an organism doesn’t have the mechanisms in question we shouldn’t use the same labels to describe them. Good to keep chipping away at these reifications/misplaced-concreteness and our accompanying bewitchments by grammar!

    • Sam Mickey

      Bewitching grammar, indeed! Cross-pollinating different language games can be helpful. On that note, from that same page of Trungpa I quote above, he chips away a little at the meaning of “intelligence.”
      “Vidya means ‘intelligence’ in Sanskrit—precision, sharpness, sharpness with space, sharpness with room in which to put things, exchange things. It is like a spacious hall where there is room to dance about, where there is no danger of knocking things over or tripping over things, for there is completely open space. We are this space, we are one with it.”

      • dmf

        can be helpful if not taken literally (like Jane Bennett’s “strategic” animism) or can (as more often happens) be quite confusing which is why I like the focus on what are the specific parts/structures and functions in question.
        Yes Trungpa was wildly optimistic, I’m with Andy Pickering on “mangling”.

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