Paradigms, Dinosaurs, and Adaptation

What term, at this moment in history, could possibly be more important for human beings to comprehend than the term “adaptation”? It certainly seems we should have a good grip on it given that Darwin himself described it over 160 years ago. But of course, generations of paleontologists and evolutionary theorists kept working to better understand the concept. And, to everyone’s surprise, it took them in a direction no one expected: straight over a paradigm boundary into complexity theory (Murphy and O’Neill 1995, Gould 2002).

That’s not, in and of itself, a problem. The problem — and it’s a very serious one — is that almost no one realizes the evolutionary and ecological paradigm of adaptation has shifted in a very significant way that dramatically impacts our understandings of living ecosystems.

The communication problem has been rather strangely complicated by a somewhat different paradigmatic schism that exists within the larger biology research community, one that separates molecular and organismal biologists. The molecular biology disciplines, including genetics and genome mapping, don’t see adaptation as being an important process at all. So a paradigm shift in evolutionary theory that impacts the way we see adaptation doesn’t matter much to them. Molecular biology and genetics are power-players in biology right now, heavy-hitters in terms of government funding and various industries. So when this field of biology absorbs and flattens the impact of evolutionary theory’s big paradigm shift, the change disappears off the radar of science journalists and textbook publishers for all of biology as a whole. The result is an educated community that’s largely unaware of the monumental change in evolutionary theory that’s working its way through ecology with enormous potential implications for human and ecosystem survival, restoration, and well-being. Notice it also means if you talk to a geneticist friend about “the big paradigm shift in how we see adaptation” they are liable to look at you with an amused shrug that will throw you back on dangerous ground if you aren’t wise to the paradigm differences within the field of biology itself. Geneticists have every right to see biology through the lens of their own discipline, but so do ecologists. Your job, as someone who collaborates with ecologists, is to understand that there’s more than one view of biology and then to make an effort to understand the one your collaborators are in.

Perhaps you can see why many evaluators who cite resilience ecology research don’t realize that in doing so they’ve tapped into an entirely different paradigm that sees adaptation as emergent rather than as linear and mechanistic. The problem here is that these two paradigmatic views of adaptation are so completely different it’s not possible to meaningfully mix them. If you appreciate a resilience ecologist’s research results, then use a linear-mechanistic and species-level view of adaptation to design policies that supposedly apply those results, you accidentally violate the responsibilities of sound scholarship as well as your relational accountability to the individual resilience ecologist involved. That’s what’s gotten coastal resilience ecologist Deborah Brosnan (2021) so concerned about the lack of basic understanding of key concepts such as resilience, especially among policy makers planning disaster response measures.

Perhaps the more telling issue here is that the communication and associated educational awareness problems are not new. More than 25 years ago, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, a key participant in evolutionary theory’s manifestation of the complexity paradigm shift, decried the complete absence of any of its new ideas in textbooks and publications written for professionals who might expect such materials to at least introduce ideas that had even then turned several major disciplines on their heads. He pointed out the continued presence, instead, of old, incorrect ideas, complaining that “. . .  invalid statements in professional publications often follow an unfortunate path towards inclusion in basic textbooks — and errors in this particular medium are almost immune to natural selection, as extinction-proof as a living fossil in the deep ocean” (Gould 1994:6765).

Remember, in this context however, Cash Ahenakew’s canny observation about professional publications, textbooks, and certain types of information. These forms of printed communication we all rely upon marginalize ways of knowing and the knowledge acquired in those ways — as well as whole peoples and cultures. The new paradigm of adaptation we’re talking about is deeply informed by complexity theory, as is resilience ecology itself, and there seems to be a real epistemic barrier to communicating non-linear Knowledge — whether of complex science or Indigenous worldview — via the very linear structural system that is print publication.  Stephen Jay Gould, for all his brilliance, resided deeply within Western culture, so I don’t think he could see print publication’s epistemic barrier for what it was. But I do think that we must understand that selective, culturally-based, paradigmatic filtering is creating a very serious problem we need to deal with (I hope in a better way than the “weaving” one I’ve cobbled up here).

All of this points, together, to the magnitude and significance of the paradigm shift in which you find yourself engaged. It is much bigger and more significant than you may have thought it was. That’s why I’ve tried so hard to help you lift your sites high enough to get hold of it. I’m also trying to help you understand you can’t just pick and choose between this and alternative paradigms, depending on what best suits your own purposes in a given moment. I realize that’s often how paradigms are discussed in the humanities and social sciences, and some paradigms really work that way. But while there are many different paradigms about reality from which people may choose, there are also many ontologically different kinds of paradigms themselves. And some kinds of paradigms are either/or ones: Brachiosaurs are arguably extinct or Brachiosaurs are walking around alive, and if you see one then it doesn’t depend at all on “how you think about the role of human imagining and visualization to construct reality” whether or not they are alive. It depends on the Brachiosaur itself and whether or not you’ve been given the gift of seeing it.

I am an Indigenous person who lives in a worldview that values and even embraces paradox. This should tell you how important this type of paradigm is, that I’m trying to explain. Someone who’s had a different experience from my own has every right to occupy the paradigm that’s appropriate to their own experience. But once you have a personal experience of “seeing the dinosaur” that is any part of the living relational world, you can’t un-see it to simply choose a different paradigm that’s more comfortable or convenient. To do so violates your relational accountability to the Knowledge that’s been given you in that experience of relationship. This is where, to me, the crucial point resides in deciding what type of paradigm you’re dealing with and how to respond to it.

Complexity is, in a number of important ways, one of these either/or kinds of paradigms that demands something of us in relational accountability. As you work through this entire exercise you will weave a deeper understanding of why that may be so. But you will also come to understand that complexity is nevertheless not a final destination. Instead, it’s a bridge that can help you reach the landscape you so desperately want to reach, where you encounter real Knowledge with which you can have real relationship. What’s important right now, however, is to make sure that you realize you cannot tap into and use the power of resilience ecology and simultaneously think of adaptation in mechanistic terms. The same is true for Indigenous ecology, which can share paradigmatic space with resilience ecology but not with  classical linear and mechanistic views of adaptation and evolutionary ecology.

The point of this page is to say: You need to get your paradigms straight and make sure you use the one you mean to use, that is appropriate for the others that inform what you’re doing. And you need to remember that once you see the dinosaur, whatever kind of living thing that dinosaur happens to be . . . well, there may be real paradigmatic consequences you have to find a way to deal with. If so, this will be a good thing you’re glad of once you understand and work through it.

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