04121501_01In response to my post on Darwin’s Copernican revolution, Joe writes:

Is that to say that the individual is prior to the species then? I just wonder how easily this could pair itself with some liberal-capitalist bootstrapism with a human face, as with any number of naturalized consumerist gimmicks: from straight-up greenwashing that gets done in the name of LEED certification to hip inner-city farmers’ markets and their localist brand-campaigns, to sociobiology and its adaptationist apology for our historical misery. When you say that for Darwin there are only individual differences, my mind jumps to those little boxes you sometimes see at the cash-register that tell you that you can really make a difference by donating your change.

At the outset, I think it’s worth noting that it’s a mistake to let one’s politics dictate ones ontology. This is a bit like suggesting that we should reject the thesis that atoms are composed of electrons because we find something in this thesis politically objectionable. Nonetheless, I do sympathize with Joe’s concerns about liberal-capitalist political orientations. It is indeed true that Darwin adopts, for lack of a better word, a sort of “metaphysical nominalism” where only individual differences exist, and in which there is no difference in kind between individuals and species. However, it’s a mistake, I think, to leap from this thesis to the thesis of liberal-capitalist politics where we can reduce the social to atomistic individuals.

In my view, there are individuals at a variety of individuals at different levels of scale, and there are individuals embedded in or nested in other individuals. This is significant because it entails that you can have emergent systems (individuals at a larger level of scale) that exercise downward causality and constraint on individuals at a smaller level of scale. Take the example of a body. A body is composed of cells. Each of these cells is an individual in its own right. However, the body is itself an individual as well. Here we have individuals (cells) nested in another individual (the body). The body has system-specific powers and capacities that differ from those of an individual cell. Take one muscle cell, for example, and you don’t get much in the way of expressivity or strength. Network a bunch of muscle cells together and suddenly you get a face capable of making all sorts of different expressions and an am with the power to lift all sorts of objects.

However, it is not simply that we get emergent powers or affects from networks of individual cells, it is also that these networks exercise a constraining force on the individuals that compose it. In the example of cells, initially cells, in the course of development, begin as pluripotent. This is to say that early on cells have the capacity to be a variety of different types of cells such as nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, and tissue cells. How, then, do cells shift from this pluripotency to being irreversibly differentiated into particular type of cells? Cell differentiation occurs in networks of cells where cells chemically signal to one another turning the individual cells off and on in particular ways that lead to differentiation into muscle, nerve, tissue, and bone cells. In other words, the network takes on a constraining role with respect to the individual cells that compose it. Here we have a relationship between two individuals: the network of cells and an individual cells, where the organization of the former individual exercises downward causality on the individuals that compose it.

The problem with liberal-capitalist political theory lies not in the ontological category of the individual, but rather in the manner in which it restricts the ontological category of the individual to human subjects, ignoring and failing to recognize individuals at different levels of scale and the relationship between these different levels of scale. For this reason, it ends up being blind to network specific forms of organization that play a constraining role with respect to individual human subjects, or the manner in which individuals at a higher level of scale play a regulating role with respect to their elements through processes of negative feedback. It thus turns out that questions of scale and emergence are key issues for any object-oriented philosophy.