Issue 199: March 2002 Boundaries and the Integrity of Organisms


Hugh Brody's provocative and thoughtful study The Other Side of Eden has got me thinking a lot about boundaries and the ethical premise of respect for the integrity of organisms. Brody's thesis is that there are (or were) two basic streams of human history, what he calls the hunter-gatherer and the farmer-herder histories. Contradicting received wisdom, Brody sees the hunter-gatherers as the ones who stay put, depending as they do on intimate knowledge of the (admittedly frequently very large) landscape they inhabit. He sees the relationship of hunter-gatherer societies to their environments as one of respect for all inhabitants of their world, human and non-human, and, I would add, an acknowledgement that there is life, and there is death which is very much a part of life.

The farmer-herder history, on the other hand, is one of constant movement (think of the waves of migrations across Europe, not to mention the Americas, in search of new land). One can argue that this demonstrates a fundamental dissatisfaction with things-as they-are. Its contemporary incarnation also seems to be based on the assumption that the human purpose is to gain control of life, nature and other people. I extend this pursuit of control to the control, ultimately, of death itself.

Death is unacceptable inasmuch as it signifies the loss of control. This attitude finds its extreme expression in the ability to administer death without apparent harm to oneself - as in the high altitude bombing of Afghanistan and Kosovo, on the one hand, and in the practice of genetic engineering on the other. The extreme of industrial food production expresses the same attitude with its massive and systematic application of agrotoxins to kill everything except the chosen crop.

Such a polarization distorts reality, of course, but it may also help us discern essentially different attitudes that we must choose between.

One can express the difference of attitudes in terms of the reluctance to intervene, on the one hand, and an eagerness to intervene on the other. The 'hunter-gatherer' culture severely limits interventions into the natural order of the world in which it lives, while the 'farmer-herder' culture regards interventions into the natural order - which is seen as disorder - as the basis of its activities with the ultimate purpose of gaining control.

Intervention implies transgression, that is, some crossing of a boundary (or border), and that is the issue. Boundaries, of course, can take many forms, from 'city limits' and the boundaries of parks and 'public' spaces to state and national borders. Borders can be based on easily identified and respected natural topographical features such as rivers and coastlines, or they may be violently imposed and maintained such as the border between North and South Korea.

There are, as well, crucial boundaries that have nothing to do with political jurisdictions, such as the borders of organisms, ecologies and cultures. While these boundaries may be traditional and unmapped, they can nevertheless be violated, as is happening around the world in the drive to find and extract oil or genetic 'resources.'

A culture that bases its ethics and social structures on respect for the integrity of the organism will cross, or violate, the boundary of the organism only with fear and trembling. A culture that values control above all will, of course, not hesitate to violate any boundary at all in pursuit of control (and usually behind that, profit).

A society rooted in respect for the organism - human and non-human - is immediately faced with the question of where the boundary of the organism is, or what it looks like, or how much space, without apparent boundary, the organism requires for its integrity, its living. This is not a simple question, of course, and it can only be answered considerately.

I recall the time it took for my family and me to understand the behaviour of a man who spent a summer with us on our farm. Peter was tall and fair, and he was born in Canada of 'white' parents. But gradually we came to realize that Peter was, in fact, Japanese, having gone to school and grown up in Japan. Peter's sense of appropriate space - the space he gave others even when we were all together in our small kitchen, and the space he seemed to occupy - was a reflection of a densely populated society which recognized the need for psychic space even when physical space was very limited. It was a recognition that the integrity of a person requires space - and a boundary - beyond that of their own skin or reach that is respected by others.

This cannot be limited to humans, however. Respect for the organism recognizes a diverse and dynamic ecology of human and non-human participants (residents) that, when healthy, is in balance. Every organism has the space, and the recognized boundaries, that it requires to live - and die. Boundaries are prerequisite, not limitations, to the health of the organism.

A society or culture in which control is considered the paramount goal does not recognize or accept such boundaries. Control requires the violation of boundaries and consequently the violation of the integrity of the organism.

The absence of respect for boundaries and the integrity of the organism is a characteristic of reductionism, in which the whole is considered as no more than the sum of its parts which are subject to ever greater fractionation or reduction. Thus an organism can be reduced to its bodily parts, then to tissues and organs, then to molecules and atoms, proteins and DNA. Nothing is sacred. The search for ever-smaller parts of the organism as the only 'truth' precludes recognition of any boundary. It diminishes societies and ecologies as nothing more than valueless aggregates and thereby denies any concept of public or social good.

In the reductionist culture, the organism exists as an ever diminishing dot in the cross hairs. In a culture that recognizes and respects boundaries, the organism exists at the crossing, and the space of this organism is bounded by the large circle. The pattern is repeated, with overlaps, to create a society or ecology. In this image, boundaries are permeable, but none the less real and essential. espect for the organism requires respect for all its boundaries.

The reductionist culture of industrial society and agriculture recognizes boundaries only as impediments to be overcome or destroyed. Monocultures of corn, soy and cotton require the elimination not only of individual organisms, but of whole populations of whatever is designated as pest, and just as the boundaries of other organisms are violated in order to eliminate them, fence rows are eliminated so fields can be expanded and consolidated. But the fence rows - and the wetlands that are filled - also bound the habitats of seen and unseen creatures that are consequently eliminated.

The destruction of boundaries and violation of the integrity of the organisms - of the corn, cotton, soybeans themselves - has proceeded with the arranged marriages of hybridization and mutation breeding and now with the shotgun weddings of genetic engineering where alien DNA is inserted quite literally with a shot gun that violates the most intimate of boundaries. While this goes on, national boundaries are breached and violated in the name of free trade through the agency of the World Trade Organization. Imperialism is not new, of course, but never has it proceeded simultaneously on fronts big and small, from the global to the molecular.