Thinking with Bats, Forests and the Cosmos

Mind&Cosmos & How Forests ThinkThomas Nagel. 2012. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press. 128 pages.

Eduardo Kohn. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Oakland: University of California Press. 288 pages.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False made quite a splash when it came out in 2012. His fundamental goal with the book was to point out that core questions on the origins and evolution of human subjective experience (and consciousness in general) remain unanswered and that the current reliance on materialist reductionist Darwinian explanations are unlikely to provide satisfactory explanations by themselves. This leaves a rather important hole in the scientific account of the world. Nagel then offers a form of atheistic natural teleology (1) as a viable option for getting better answers, but ends with-out offering any clear program for how to operationalize such a project. In addition to widespread media coverage, the book drew praise from creationists, scorn from evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists and was attacked from both the left and the right. The Guardian (2) named it the “most despised science book of 2012.” Stephen Pinker tweeted that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once great thinker.” And in The Nation (3) two prominent philosophers stated that “Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing.” The authors went on to say that “[e]ven a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.” Quite the intellectual uproar for a short (128 page) manifesto.

What Did Nagel Say?

The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order—our structure and behavior in space and time—but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience—how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

—Thomas Nagel, New York Times (4)

Nagel proposes that the wide popularity of psychophysical reductionism (5) among philosophers and scientists is due to both the dominant role of the physical sciences in society and the feeling that they are the best defense against theistic proposals. Many academics in the social sciences and humanities should be quite sympathetic to Nagel’s assertions that hegemonic domination of scientific reductionism might overly constrain possible explanations for the human experience. Mind and Cosmos is an attempt to describe an option for those who find psychophysical reductionism as an exclusive argument insufficient and suggests that a scientific understanding of nature (and the human) need not be limited to physical theory.

Nagel provides a series of accessible analyses of areas where the psychophysical reductionist approach falters, arguing that if evolutionary processes are purely physical they cannot wholly encompass, or explain, mental and conscious processes as neither of these can be defined or identified in purely physical terms. He also does a nice job of laying out the realist-subjectivist debate and the role of normative explanation (6), concluding that both are slightly off because human action is “explained not only by physiology, or desires, but also by judgments.” His bottom line is that in asking about human experience, “what has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia (7) but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view.” This, he asserts, is not possible if one relies on a highly physicalist evolutionary theory alone.

Nagel sums up this perspective as follows: “The great cognitive shift (in humans) is an expansion of consciousness from the perspectival form contained in the lives of particular creatures to an objective, world-encompassing form that exists both individually and intersubjectively. It was originally a biological evolutionary process, and in our species it has become a collective cultural process as well.”

If this were the whole of it, and if his conclusions actually laid out a well-constructed philosophical argument for how his framework might produce a program for scientific or social inquiry or a methodology to operationalize it, the book would have caused a less fervent response. It even might have worked its way into the social sciences as a philosophical ally for those who mount arguments against the reductionist discourse of evolutionary psychology.

However, Nagel goes a few steps further in his arguments and it is in these steps that he stumbles. He concludes the summary quote above with this line: “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe waking up and becoming aware of itself.” He argues that the universe has in its essence the potential for consciousness and so the development of human beings over time reflects, along with the processes of organic evolution, a teleological unfolding through which consciousness and reason have fully developed in humans. He is clear to state that he is not invoking a theistic intervention (he is an atheist), nor is he invoking consciousness as simply an emergent property, or a by-product, of the physical processes of evolution. Rather, he offers a version of Aristotelian natural teleology that does not quite pan out.

Nagel QuoteIn pushing his perspective, Nagel makes two substantial errors: (a) he spends a good portion of the book making specific assertions about the limitations of evolutionary theory/biology without fully engaging what is currently known about this topic, and (b) he paints a picture of human experience that is devoid of any recognition of the complex understandings that have emerged from a century of ethnographic and theoretical work in anthropology.

To correct these errors, and enhance the argument, I review the emerging concepts of niche construction and diverse inheritance patterns in human evolution, and supplement Nagel’s lack of anthropological input by thinking with Eduardo Kohn’s recent book, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Kohn asks us to embrace human existence not so much as E. B. Tylor’s “complex whole,” but rather as an “open whole.” He urges us to recognize that the world is permeated and constituted by semiosis (8) and that a full understanding of that world (and human consciousness) mandates a broader, richer, ethnographic and multispecies perspective. Such approaches can offer a small set of correctives that could make Nagel’s arguments more robust, effective and interesting. And in turn this is important because, as Kohn suggests, it can help advance Marilyn Strathern’s call “to create new conditions for new thoughts” (9).

Knowing about Evolutionary Theory

Nagel uses a very simplistic notion of evolution, one that is unfortunately shared by many in academia and the public at large. It is a focus on natural selection as the primary, or only, architect of evolutionary outcomes, and presents a crude view of what the processes of evolution are (10).

It is known that not everything humans (or other organisms) do is directly the product of evolutionary forces, or even evolutionarily relevant. Our bodies and the neurological and psychological processes that influence the way we think, feel and act are only in part shaped by our evolutionary histories and ongoing evolution. Evolution is not simply a materialistic “survival of the fittest”; it never has been (11).

A basic understanding of how evolution works can be summarized as follows: mutation introduces genetic variation which in interaction with genetic drift, epigenetic (12) and developmental processes produces biological variation in organisms, which may be passed from generation to generation. Gene flow moves the genetic variation around and natural selection shapes variation in response to specific constraints and pressures in the environment. Organism-environment interaction can result in niche construction (13), changing the shape of natural selection and creating ecological inheritance. In humans, social structures, cultural patterns, behavioral actions and perceptions can impact these evolutionary processes, which in turn can affect developmental outcomes. Multiple systems of inheritance (genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic) can all provide information that influences human interactions with the surrounding world, as well as with one another and can cause bio- logical change over time (14).

Epigenetic processes can affect gene function and regulation but are not coded for in the DNA. These processes can be initiated, regulated and otherwise influenced by life experience, social stressors, perceptions and a range of psychological variables in addition to being affected by specific biotic and material ecological factors. Their actions can have cross-generational impacts. These epigenetic variations can produce different outcomes, even for organisms with identical DNA sequences. Thus, despite the way Nagel portrays it, non-physical forces are central elements in human physical evolution. In particular, Nagel could have benefited from explicit inclusion of the concepts of epigenetics and niche construction.

Reliance on learning, plasticity and culture lends human-niche construction a special potency. In addition to ecological manipulations and genetic shifts, humans generate and transmit symbols, artifacts, institutions and meanings. All of these processes are multi-directional, with humans, throughout their lifespans, both directing, and being directed by, their own development (15).

Niche-construction theory is particularly relevant to the dynamics of human cognition, as the process includes the effects of cultural context, social histories and human behavior as active parts of our evolutionary dynamics (16). When considering human experience, it is a mistake to think that our biology exists separate from our social and structural ecologies, or that our cultural and cognitive selves are not constantly entangled with biology (17).

The concept that there are basically two material variables in human development, the outside (environment) and the inside (genes), is incorrect. Our systems of development and inheritance are not purely physical and the boundaries among our genes, epigenetic systems, bodies, ecologies, psychologies, societies and histories are fluid and dynamic. Perception, meaning and experience are as central in human evolutionary processes as are nutrients, hormones and bone density—and all of these elements interact.

Modern evolutionary theory cannot be wholly classified as psychophysical reductionism, as it does not reduce the whole of human evolutionary experience to genes, reproductive fitness or purely physicalist ex- planations. It might not provide a full explanation of why we have consciousness, but it can offer a range of fascinating answers about mechanisms and processes that integrate our bodies, actions, perceptions and manipulations of the world and that might advance the understanding of what it means to be conscious and to be human. Nagel should have integrated his arguments with this reality of modern evolutionary theory. Recognizing and engaging with it would have enabled him to develop his premise in a more constructive manner.

Meaning and Consciousness Exist in Many Ways

As with most American and European philosophers and scientists, Nagel is fundamentally constrained by particular knowledge traditions that inhibit fuller and possibly more effective (or at least more innovative) understandings of consciousness. The rootedness in a tradition that draws heavily from Aristotelian and Platonic logics—and the multiple centuries of European and North American philosophical and scientific thinking they spawned—creates a limited playing field when thinking about how humans experience and perceive consciousness. This playing field is shaped by the core premise that there is only one kind of matter and/or that there is separation of mind and matter, of culture and nature, and that mind is not or cannot be a property of matter at all. This background dominates the discourse throughout Nagel’s book and lays the infrastructure for most philosophical arguments about what it means to be human.

Nagel’s purpose is to distance himself from both the psychophysical reductionism prevalent amongst most scientists and philosophers of biology, and the theistic interventionist approaches of some theologians and a few philosophers and scientists. But he still makes his arguments as if all humans view, and experience, consciousness in the same way. To his credit, he is trying to get away from the standard science vs. theism approaches and offer a new option, but his new offering becomes largely a reshaped (or unshaped) Aristotelian natural theology. An engagement with anthropological theory, and specific ethnographies and their implications, would have broadened his scope regarding how humans perceive and receive the world and consciousness.


Eduardo Kohn’s recent book is an example of an anthropological text that could make Nagel’s approach (and those of many philosophers and scientists) more effective. Anthropology has long been concerned with the processes through which our minds and the minds of others (human and nonhuman) can interrelate. Kohn revisits Charles Sanders Peirce’s concepts of semiosis and uses a rich ethnography of the Runa village of Avila in Ecuador’s upper Amazon to demonstrate that thinking about, and experiencing, consciousness can exceed the limits of individual bodies, species and even concrete existence. And he does so without needing to invoke a baseline Aristotelian foundation or a version of Cartesian dualism. Kohn’s ethnography and insight compel readers to recognize that semiosis is central to life itself, but that this semiosis is not limited to the linguistically constructed symbolic and metaphysical view of consciousness that Nagel and most philosophers are constrained by.

Kohn urges readers to go beyond the human and recognize that how people think of selves and consciousness might be limiting the inquiry into how humans exist in the world (or even how the world is) and how this matters in relationship to other beings. Through a series of experiences in the world, his own and those of the Runa, he lays out a scenario wherein many species, not just humans, are navigating and creating a semiotic landscape. For other animals, indexical and iconic signs permeate the world, and as hu- mans we add to this a symbolic landscape. For us, the emergent properties of symbolic representation enable a system wherein hope and imagination, and the symbols associated with them, can maintain stability and meaning even in the absence of their objects of reference (18). A key to understanding human consciousness is to recognize that while our symbolic mode of existence is emergent (19), we also share fully in the navigation, and creation, of the iconic and indexical semiotic landscape. We are part of the same world as other animals, and unlike Descartes’s or Kant’s (or Nagel’s) assertions, our ability to reflect symbolically on our existence does not enable us to truly separate our “selves” as wholly unique types relative to the selves of other creatures in the world.

Kohn urges readers to consider a wide range of living beings as selves, and to understand these selves as developing—constructing and being constructed—in relation to past and future relationships. Social life is an extension of this process of self-formation. This resonates, to an extent, with Nagel’s position, but Kohn’s use of a rich ethnographic context makes it both tangible and understandable. Kohn’s engaging and intellectually dynamic ethnography of the Runa and their relations to the world around them demonstrates that interrelations among people and dogs and forests, as just one example, play important, interactive and creative roles in the formation of human selves and their life histories. Nagel’s view of what is considered consciousness, his ideas about the teleology of the universe and the role of reductive vs. emergent explanations of subjective experience, could be expanded, and possibly sharpened, by engaging with Kohn’s approach and the perspectives it generates.

Numerous other anthropological perspectives—Geertz’s webs of significance, the multiple analyses of the human propensity to make meaning and the concepts surrounding the construction “common sense”—all could have been integrated into Nagel’s arguments. These would have bolstered the assertions that reductive approaches alone won’t provide the most comprehensive answers and that there is something broader than just human physiology involved in the conceptualization, and formation, of consciousness and subjective experience. Meaning matters, and the boundaries of mind, flesh and matter are much more fluid than many in the standard world of philosophy and science perceive them to be. Seriously engaging with anthropology forces the position that being human always involves more than the material and suggests that neither psychophysical reductionism nor theistic interventionist approaches are satisfactory avenues to the most comprehensive answers.

Why Take Nagel or Kohn Seriously?

Despite the omissions in Nagel’s book, I applaud the attempt to get his fellow philosophers and some of the rest of us to move beyond the limited landscapes currently traversed when trying to describe what it means to have consciousness and why it might have arisen. I also emphatically urge readers interested in thinking about the human to read Kohn and think with him—and with dogs, trees and giant anteaters—about our “habit of the symbolic.” The way humans experience consciousness and our symbolic semiosis makes us truly exceptional creatures, but it does not cut us off from the world. Such a view can help thinkers move past Nagel’s famous earlier assertion that we cannot think ourselves into the mind of a bat; for if we share some of the same semiotic perceptions and creations with the bat, then we can think together rather than “into” one another. Human consciousness might not be in need of as much teleological assistance as Nagel assumes.

I share Nagel’s concerns with overly reductive approaches. The problem as he presents it mirrors, to an extent, the “science-culture” debate played out over the last century in both academia and the broader public. But much of the back and forth on this topic, including Nagel’s manifestos, suffer from the same weaknesses: (a) oversimplification of evolutionary processes and neglect of the post-NeoDarwinian reality of evolutionary theory, and (b) not realizing that understanding humans means expanding beyond the traditional touchstones of intellectually Eurocentric perspectives and incorporating broader ethnographic realities. Putting modern evolutionary and anthropological perspectives into play in ongoing debates about consciousness can provide a better intellectual toolkit for approaching core questions about the human, in academia and beyond.


1. Natural teleology is the notion that nature inherently tends toward specific outcomes.

2. /belief/2013/jan/04/most-despised-science- book-2012.

3. do-you-only-have-brain-thomas-nagel?page=0,0.

4. From Thomas Nagel’s 2013 New York Times “Opinionator” essay summarizing and defending his core premise http://opinionator.blogs.

5. Basically the concept that everything, including consciousness, can be ultimately best understood at the level of the physical aspects/components that underlay its function.

6. Nagel explains that realists argue that moral and other evaluative judgments can be best explained by a more general set of basic evaluative truths and the facts that bring them into play. Subjectivists explain the truth or falsity of value judgments in terms of their conformity to our considered motivational dispositions or moral sense. See 101–105.

7. “Qualia” refers to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience.

8. “Semiosis” is the creation and interpretation of signs.

9. Marilyn Strathern, 1988, “No Nature: No Culture: The Hagen Case,” in Nature, Culture and Gender, C. MacCormack and M. Strathern, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 174–222.

10. For an excellent summary of what they are, see table 1 in the “Commentary” by Dwight W. Read in Claes Andersson, Anton Törnberg and Petter Törnberg, 2014, “An Evolutionary Developmental Approach to Cultural Evolution,” Current Anthropology 55(2): 154–174, and read Kevin Laland, N., Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd Muller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jabonka and John Odling-Smee, 2014, “Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink? Yes, Urgently, ” Nature 514:161–164.

11. See Agustín Fuentes, 2009, “Re-situating Anthropological Approaches to the Evolution of Human Behavior,” Anthropology Today 25(3): 12–17; and Agustín Fuentes, 2009, Evolution of Human Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press); and Kevin N. Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd Muller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jabonka, John Odling-Smee, 2014, “Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink? Yes, Urgently,” Nature 514:161–164.

12. Epigenetics are the factors above the level of the gene that influence and shape development and other processes. This means that interactions of cells, different tissue types, hormone systems and a variety of other physiological reactions, that are not directly due to actions of genes, can all have substantial impacts on how bodies and minds function. These impacts can have evolutionarily relevant outcomes as well. The bottom line in epigenetics is that there are many factors beyond the gene that matter in how organisms develop, respond and evolve.

13. “Niche construction” is an organism-environment relationship that is dynamic and bi-directional. Organisms respond to the ecological pressures on them and by doing so restructure the local ecology, thus affecting the patterns of pressures on them.

14. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, 2005, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

15. Emma G. Flynn, Kevin N. Laland, Rachel L. Kendal, and Jeremy R. Kendal, 2013, “Developmental Niche Construction,” Developmental Science 16(2): 296–313.

16. Jeremy Kendal, 2012, “Cultural Niche Construction and Human Learning Environments: Investigating Sociocultural Perspectives,” Biological Theory 6(3):241–250.

17. A. Fuentes, 2013, “Blurring the Biological and Social in Human Becomings,” in T. Ingold and G. Paalson, eds., Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 42–58.

18. See T. Deacon, 1997, The Symbolic Species: Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: Norton); Terrance Deacon, 2012, In- complete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: Norton); and A. Fuentes, 2014, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” Time and Mind 7(3):241–257, DOI:10.10 80/1751696X.2014.945720.

19. To say that our symbolic mode of existence is emergent is to argue that this way of being arises from the interactions of many elements (bodies, brains, senses, perceptions, experiences, other beings, etc.) but that none of these have in themselves the specific property of symbolic experience: it emerges from the interrelationships of these components.

Agustín Fuentes is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His current research includes cooperation and community in human evolution, ethnoprimatology and multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory and interdisciplinary approaches to human nature(s). His recent books include Evolution of Human Behavior (Oxford) and Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature (University of California).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *