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The Metaphysics of Polarity

Continued from previous page 

Cooperation and control in multi-cellular organisms

The evolution of mental abilities in cells with a nucleus and multi-cellular organisms such as fungi occurred in tandem with the development of more complex life forms; and was a response to the challenge of regulating both the internal chemistry and social relationships of these organisms.


In Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) Merlin Sheldrake describes the “brain like” capacities of fungi:

  • … “their many options entail decisions.” (p.44)

  • “Their fickle environments entail improvisation.” (p. 44)

  • “Their trials involve errors,” (p. 44) i.e., they learn from experience.

  • “ .. fungi actively sense and interpret their worlds.” (p. 44)

  • Fungi can find the shortest path out of a labyrinth, a common test of the problem-solving abilities of animals. (p. 48)

  • “ … solving spatial and geometrical problems is what they have evolved to do.” ( p. 48)


Most important for the theme of this article is that “… mycelial networks (of fungi) coordinate themselves and act as a coordinated whole,” ( p. 49) despite the lack of a center of control such as a brain. Sheldrake asserts:  “Mycelial coordination takes place everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. A fragment of a mycelium can regenerate an entire network.” ( p. 50) 


Sheldrake offers a possible answer to the question raised by Godfrey-Smith:

“if bacteria invented transistors what were they doing with them? Why did they need to control electricity with electricity?”  (p. 32) Sheldrake states that Stafen Olsson, a Swedish mycologist, “hypothesized that electrical signaling was a realistic way for a wide variety of fungi to send messages that conveyed information about food sources, injury, local conditions within the fungus, or the presence of other individuals around it.” (p. 62)


Sheldrake points out the resemblance of fungal networks that “use waves of electrical activity to transmit signal around a network” to “a brain like activity.” (p. 63) Sheldrake asserts that fossilized mycelium with “tangled networks” 2.4 billion years old have been discovered in ancient lava flows “more than a billion years before fungi were thought to have branched off the tree of life …” (p. 67) Multicellular organisms developed ways of creating unity of purpose among thousands, hundreds of thousands and (perhaps) millions of cells at least a billion years before central nervous systems created the same capacity in animal species. The human brain evolved as a response to this challenge in organisms with a much greater capacity for physical movement and the enhanced range of predation allowed by this extraordinary new ability. 


The part/whole polarity in animals

In The Strange Order of Things Antonio Damasio describes the emergence of central nervous systems as a means of regulating life processes (both internal and external) in organisms consisting of large numbers of cells, each of which embodied the homeostatic imperative to maintain itself and flourish. Central nervous systems achieved something so remarkable that the unitary awareness of animals and humans is taken for granted, rarely mentioned in discussions of the biological evolution of mind or in discussions of consciousness.  


According to Damasio, the capacity for feelings that always have a positive or negative valence is a way of expressing and regulating  the well-being of the whole organism.  Feelings were created by nervous systems in multicellular organisms which evolved from cooperative relationships among cells and colonies of cells to “whole body identity.” (pp. 64-65)


Damasio asserts:

“There is an overall life of the organism, a global life.”(p.67) Nervous systems create a unitary awareness in multicellular organisms that would otherwise function as a federation of cells. Concretely, central nervous systems create the experience that an injury to one part of the organism is an injury to the whole organism. Similarly, pleasure felt in one part of the organism is experienced as beneficial to the entire organism. It would be odd to say: “my right arm feels great but my left leg hurts like hell.”      


Damasio returns repeatedly to the theme of nervous systems as “assistants to the body,” and “coordinators of the life processes in bodies complex and diversified enough that the functional articulation of tissues, organs and systems as well as their relationship to the environment required a dedicated system to achieve the coordination.” (p. 66) He maintains that “Minds depend on the presence of nervous systems charged with helping run life efficiently, in their respective bodies and on a host of interactions of nervous systems and bodies. “No body, never mind.” (p. 66)


Feelings regulate life processes in the old internal world of the body through one main polarity:  “Everything in this old internal world is qualified, good, bad, or in between. This is a world of valence.” (pp. 82-83)


Damasio makes a common distinction between representations of feelings which reflect the state of the organism at a point in time, with an emphasis on the body, and “images” created by sensory data which represent the external world. But what if feelings that reflect internal states affect in myriad ways the mental representations created by the senses? The boundary between feelings, sensations and mental representations of the sensory world are porous, i.e., interactive, so much so that  there is no affect free sensory information in the minds of animals and humans.  It is this reality that makes the experience of beauty/ugliness a common human experience. Affect contains and shapes the senses and mental life so completely we rarely notice that descriptions of just about anything embody aesthetic judgments. Flowers are gorgeous, colors are exciting or dull, a rainy day is dark and gloomy, etc. 


Feelings of unitary awareness enable effective predation and defense against predation among animals; experiences that strengthen the sense of identity. Predation, conflict, and threat strengthen unitary awareness among animals  just as conflict, violence, war strengthen social identity, and demonstrate the necessity of acting in concert to attack or protect against enemies. 


In Metazoa, Godfrey-Smith refers to the thinking of Fred Keijzer, a Dutch psychologist and philosopher. Keijzer emphasizes “the shaping of action” as a central concern in the early evolution of nervous systems. Keijzer suggests that the shaping of  complex actions results in  new kinds of animal sensing, especially touch, that register “something external has happened.” Bodily movement began to create a clearer distinction between the inner and outer world, a polarity on which subjectivity depends. Godfrey-Smith comments: “the evolution of animals produced multicellular action achieved through sheets of cells that contract, twist,  and grasp. Nerves and muscles make this possible; a sponge can do nothing like it. Action of this kind was a transformative invention in evolution; it changed everything.” (pp. 60-61)    


Godfrey-Smith points out the importance of bodies with bilateral design: “The evidence is good that nervous systems evolved in a body with something like a radial design, … called the bilaterian, or bilaterally symmetrical body … bodies with a left-right axis, as well as a top and bottom. Our bodies are bilaterian bodies, along with those of ants, snails and seahorses.” (pp. 70-71) This was important because “the bilaterian body with its left- right symmetry was an innovation especially in the realm of action. The bilaterian body is set up to go somewhere. There are no non- bilaterian bodies on dry land.” (p. 72)


Godfrey-Smith agrees with Damasio that animals fundamentally changed “when they evolved multicellular sensing, encouraging parts of their bodies to become maps or reflection of fragments of their surroundings.”  (p. 86) However, he is not convinced that the sensory capacity to map the external world and the capacity for “sentience” developed in tandem. Rather, he is impressed by the way in which animals with central nervous systems which enabled images and mapmaking to track “the divide between self and other, between the animal itself and everything else.” He comments: “This kind of sensing that marks the relation between self and other is an important feature of animal life. . It gives rise to a new way of being in the world, … the establishment of a point of view, a perspective in a new sense.”  (p. 87)


Despite their differences, both Godfrey-Smith and Damasio view animals’ capacity to map the world around them and to distinguish between self  and other as having developed several hundred million years ago, rather than more recently through the development of the cerebral cortex. Damasio and Godfrey-Smith also agree that some species of fish and insects may have “sentience” defined as the capacity to experience feelings such as pain. Furthermore, according to Godfrey Smith “Animal agency brings with it the origin of subjects.”(pp. 104-105)


Godfrey-Smith maintains that animal biologists “have collected considerable evidence that these animals  (hermit crabs) can feel something like pain. (p.89) In addition, nociception, i.e., the detention of damage, is very common in animals which biologists often interpret as a reflex, not sufficient to infer pain, “and they look for something more, something that seems tied to the feeling of pain … (such as) tending and protecting wounds, seeking out pain killing chemicals … and learning from the good and bad consequences of actions. Some biologists have shown a kind of wound tending in shrimp, for example.”(p.90) Furthermore, some animals (e.g., hermit crabs) make trade-offs between painful experiences “and the various other benefits and costs that apply to that situation” … which suggests “that for a crab, there is a range of events and possibilities that are seen as good or bad, and the pain of a small shock, though bad, is factored into decisions along with other considerations.” (p. 90) What hermit crabs do, according to some biologists, is more like a rational decision-making process than an automatic reaction determined by genes.  


Godfrey-Smith is more cautious than Damasio in concluding that species which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago have feelings, yet he is clearly open to this hypothesis. However, he makes the cardinal error of separating the capacity of some animals to perceive a more finely delineated sensory world from the capacity for affect. Damasio does not make this mistake because of his theoretical framework that links what he terms “images” in the sensory world to “images” in the experience of bodily affect. Animal cognition and human cognition are immersed in affect, which Damasio understands because of his insight that the capacity to experience feelings grows out of homeostasis, i.e., “life favorable or unfavorable” in early life forms, including single celled bacteria.


Feelings in humans embody (literally)  the experience of the whole organism. We refer to “gut feelings”, or “heartache”, or to experiences that are “hard to swallow”, or “bitter”, and which “leave a bad taste in the mouth.” Damasio explains: “First using images made from the oldest components of the organism’s interior – nature gradually fashioned feelings.” (p. 77) This old interior world “must reflect the goodness or badness of the state of that interior universe,” (pp. 82-83) arguably to create  and reflect unitary awareness.  


As a rule, humans take the unified awareness of ourselves and animals for granted, though there is some cultural variation in this regard. In his history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm ( 2019), Neil Price states that “At the most fundamental level of all, inside every Viking-Age person was not just some abstract ‘soul’ … but several separate and independent beings.” The Vikings viewed the individual person as a multiplicity of beings, which sounds bizarre in our civilization. It is the fragmentation of mental/emotional functioning which surprises us, not unitary awareness which does not seem to require a scientific explanation.


A better understanding of the evolution of the mind requires careful thought regarding aspects of human experience usually taken for granted. An early monumental achievement of central nervous systems was to produce unitary awareness in animals consisting of hundreds of thousands or millions of cells, which was achieved through the integration of affect (with positive or negative valence) and sensory information, and then to create multiple ways of integrating sensory information with bodily experience. Damasio asserts: “The ground zero of being corresponds to a deceptively continuous and endless feeling state” which “always refers the body of the organism in which they emerge. Feelings portray the organism’s interior – the state of internal organs and of internal operations.”(p. 102)  


Unitary awareness in combination with an enhanced capacity for action, i.e., predation, fight/flight, are associated in both animals and humans with a strong sense of self vs. other, and with the creation of subjectivity which many scientists and philosophers (including Damasio and Godfrey-Smith) take to be the foundation of consciousness. I have a different view of consciousness which I will discuss in part 4 of this article.



The biological  evolution of mind makes use of polarities at every stage:


  • The use of electrical charge to achieve homeostasis in single celled bacteria.

  • The electrical functioning of central nervous systems that utilize biochemical switches to “flip” charge polarity. 

  • The creation of positive/negative feelings on which the unitary awareness of animals and humans depends.

  •  The powerful sense of self identity created by predation and defense against predation associated with a felt distinction between the inner world of feelings which reflect bodily states of well-being or disequilibrium and the external world.

  • The development of subjectivity that includes experience of an inner world separate from others, an inner world that is grounded in feelings and  enhanced by imagination in humans, one of the topics of discussion in the next two parts of this article.


The features of subjectivity which include the creation of mental maps and other representations of the internal and external world; the subject-object structure of perception and of self-awareness that depends on near instantaneous feedback loops, seemingly without limit. A person can be aware of a feeling or object, and aware of her/his awareness, while reflecting on the entire process of awareness, or any specific element of awareness.    


The polarities of biochemistry lead to the polarities of experience, both in animal species and humans.   


Social evolution

Among anthropologists and social theorists, it is a common observation that Us vs. Them is the foundation of social identity. Bands, tribes and parts of tribes such as clans, totem groups, moieties; chiefdoms, kingdoms, states, city states, nations. Tribes and tribe-like entities feed on opposition and differences that take many forms, e.g., hunting in groups, ritual and shared symbols, moving in unison, kinship rules, and organized violence among others. David Ronfeldt, a social theorist, comments:

“What is distinctive about tribes, as the first form of societal organization, is the clustering of people according to kinship principles. It is a design aimed not at accomplishing complex tasks but, rather, at affirming a people’s sense of identity and belonging for purposes of survival and solidarity.”  And: “Classic tribes are about kinship identities that are singular and sticky – they cannot be changed or denied … Tribes also tend to be very boundary sensitive …” ( p. 23)


In strong tribal frameworks, a person is either a member of the tribe or he/she is not a member, i.e., the polarity is ‘In vs. Out’, i.e., ‘Us vs. Them’. One set of rules, including ethical rules, apply to tribal members; very different rules apply to outsiders. The moral principle, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” may be strictly applied to tribal members while the tribe follows a genocidal command from its God to exterminate entire peoples, including women and children. Ancient religions have tribal origins which they seek to transcend, with great difficulty. 


Ronfeldt is mistaken in his assertion that tribal organizations are not aimed at accomplishing complex tasks. Hunting large animals requires a high degree of social cooperation, indeed a whole ethos of courage and social solidarity. The same is true for the defense of tribal groups from animal predators and human enemies, and for group survival in harsh environments. In these circumstances, the sine qua non of effective action was strong group solidarity.


One of the best recent discussions of kinship systems created by tribes is The WEIRDest People in The World (2020) by Joseph Henrich. According to Henrich, “Throughout most of human history, people grew up enmeshed in dense family networks that knitted together distant cousins and in-laws. In these regulated- relational worlds, people’s survival, identity, security, marriages, and success depended on the health and prosperity of kin- based networks, which often formed discrete institutions known as clans, lineages, houses, or tribes…. Within these enduring networks, everyone is endowed with an extensive array of inherited obligations, responsibilities, and privileges in a dense social web.” (p. 27) 


Henrich asserts:

“This social interdependence breeds emotional interdependence, leading people to strongly identify with their in-groups and to make sharp  in-group vs. out-group distinctions based on social interconnections.”  (p. 28)


Henrich describes the experience of William Buckley, who in 1803 escaped from an Australian penal colony before he was rescued from starvation by an Aboriginal band of hunter-gatherers along the wild coast of Victoria. Because of his light skin, the band took him to be a recently deceased kinsman and so nursed him back to health.


Henrich states that the band was “one of several that together formed a patrilineal clan, which was one of about two dozen clans that composed the Wathaurung tribe.” (p. 60)  He continues:

 “Threaded together by marital and ritual tribes, the Wathaurung were enmeshed in a tribal confederation that spoke related languages and possessed similar customs. Each clan belonged to one of two marriage groups. Everyone had to marry someone in the other marriage group, and sex with members of one’s own marriage group was considered incest. …  Buckley also described the white streaked bodies, rhythmic drumming, synchronous dancing and roaring fires at large ceremonies that periodically brought together diverse clans and neighboring tribes. … the most striking feature of Buckley’s three decades with the Wathaurung were the violent conflicts that occurred among bands, clans and tribes. … Buckley recounted 14 conflicts, which included several deadly night raids as well as pitched battles involving hundreds of warriors.”  (p. 60)  


This extraordinary description of the Wathaurung refers to a dual organization of kinship ties and marriage rules discussed brilliantly by Claude Levi-Strauss in several books, including Structural Anthropology (1963). Levi- Strauss comments: “We know the remarkably widespread distribution of what is generally referred to as dual organization.” (p.133) Anthropologists have studied variations of the dual organization of marriage rules and much else in Australia,  Melanesia, Indonesia, North America and South America.


Levi-Strauss emphasizes the variety and complexity of dual organization, all of which are structured around multiple oppositions: male/female, two exogamous moieties or pairs of moieties, married couples/ bachelors, sacred/profane, center/periphery, high status/low status, cooked food/raw food, etc. Tribes that utilize dual organization do not always emphasize the same polarities with the exception of moieties, but every version of dual organization incorporates multiple oppositions, usually organized geographically to some extent.


Furthermore, dual organizations are more than well-defined social structures; they incorporate metaphysical concepts, for example in circular village structures. Many ancient peoples attempted to model cosmic principles in every aspect of social structure. Levi-Strauss describes the Winnebago division of cosmic functions: “one moiety is responsible for cosmic creation, and the other for its preservation. These functions are quite distinct, since creation is carried out at a given moment, and preservation extends in time.” (p. 153)


Dual organization of tribal structures around the world embodies a metaphysics of polarity which creates an underlying rationale for complex social structures that apply to every dimension of tribal life. Regarding the Bororo, a South American tribe, Levi-Strauss comments: “despite its circular form,  the natives do not conceive of the village as a single entity susceptible of analysis into two parts, but rather as two distinct entities joined together.” (p. 145) In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Levi Stauss comments:

“Bororo society offers a lesson to the student of human nature. … native informants will describe … this ballet in which two village moieties strive to live and breathe through and for the other; exchanging women, possessions and services in fervent reciprocity … the wise men have worked out an impressive cosmology and embodied it in the plan of the villages and layout of the dwellings. They arranged and rearranged the contradictions they encountered, never accepting any opposition without repudiating it in favor of another, cutting up and dividing the groups, joining them and setting them against one another and turning the whole social and spiritual life into a coat of arms in which symmetry and asymmetry are equally balanced …” (p. 245).


The Bororo as described by Levi Stauss were constantly developing the theme of polarity, both metaphysical and social, both to overcome and deepen it. Every attempt to transcend polarities deepened and extended them.       


 From this perspective, the challenge which every tribe must confront is how to bring into a harmonious whole polar opposition that threatens to tear the tribe apart. One strategy for doing so are well defined relationships among different tribal groups associated with numerous oppositions in nature and in social functions. The underlying goal is to create a strong tribal identity out of opposed forces that threaten to fragment the tribe. Dual organizations overcome polar opposition among forces and groups by converting polarity into complementarity, a strategy utilized in homeostasis and in the operation of central nervous systems.      


Organized violence directed at enemies strengthens tribal bonds

Regarding Buckley’s experience of violence among Aboriginal tribes, Henrich comments: “Alongside marital ties, psychologically potent rituals helped solidify the bonds within and between clans and tribes. However, despite these social bonds, violent intergroup conflict remined a constant threat and a major cause of death.”  (p. 62) It would be an exaggeration to describe most of this violent conflict as warfare. Violence often took the form of raiding parties or vengeance killings directed at specific kin groups, but in a few instances involved pitched battles between hundreds of combatants. Organized violence was common among the Aboriginal groups Buckley encountered but warfare was rare. Why?


Every social group consisting of just a few persons to societies with populations of more than a billion people, is subject to fragmentation resulting from personal dislikes, conflicting interests of persons and sub-groups and different perspectives regarding how to carry out and support group values and beliefs. The threat or actuality of violence directed at persons or groups solely because of their tribal identity (or kinship affiliation) is a powerful reminder of group interdependence.  Henrich asserts: “In fact, the threat posed by violent intergroup conflict may be the most important domain of interdependence.” (p. 81) If a person can be attacked or killed merely because of his tribal identity, or if a person  who is a victim of violence can count on other tribal members to exact revenge on enemies in another tribe, then social identity defined by tribal membership on which protection from threat depends is greatly strengthened.


To this end, a near constant low level of intertribal violence can work to the advantage of  competing tribal groups. However, it would not be correct to describe violent conflicts between or among tribes as “ritual violence.” Such conflicts can quickly escalate into group warfare and mass killings given the opportunity or provocation. An escalation in violence that can lead to mass killings may not be prohibited by cultural rules.     


Scaling up to meet the competition

Given the strong tendency to fragmentation in  social groups of every size, there must be powerful incentives to “scale up” and reshape social identity in new ways. Henrich describes a process whereby state level institutions gradually “undermined the kin-based institutions of the lower strata, mostly by usurping some of their functions.” (p.119) Henrich discusses “how chiefly clans can harness … age-set institutions to create a military,” e.g., by gaining control of male initiation rites, as a means to collect tribute and raid surrounding groups. He describes the Zulu chief, Shaka, who in the 19th century, established “an army of ritually bonded young men drawn from diverse clans and tribes. This created the first state level institution – the military – of the embryonic Zulu state.” ( p. 119)


The development of new social identities that transcend tribe and clan creates an incentive for organized violence with an enemy that drives home the vital importance of the newly developed, larger social identity. Henrich acknowledges that “Premodern states still needed clan and tribal institutions to govern effectively and sometimes even buttressed or augmented the power of kin-based institutions.   … there’s no steady descent to chiefdoms and states  … clans resist subordination into chiefdoms, and chiefdoms resist conquest and assimilation by other chiefdoms and states. In the face of intergroup competition, any institutional elements and recombination that increase a group’s economic productivity, security, fertility, or military effectiveness tend to spread ….” Nevertheless, the tendency to fragmentation remains: “Once intergroup competition wanes, which often happens when states or empires manage to eliminate their competition, things slowly fall apart. Without the looming threats posed by competing societies, the competition between ruling families within a society will gradually intensify and gradually tear the state-level institutions apart.”  (p. 120) 


States and empires need enemies to hold the tendency toward internal fragmentation at bay. One example from the history of Western Europe: England and France were at war for more than a third of the years between 1100 and 1815. These wars had many causes and rationales, most of which no one except historians can remember, yet one powerful cause was constant, i.e., in the absence of war between these countries, violent and destructive civil conflicts between powerful aristocratic families were likely. For English and French kings, war was a path to military glory and renown and for territorial acquisition; and war was also a way of controlling the ambitions of powerful aristocratic families, and of creating the necessity for royal power. 

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