Step 19. Arboreal mammals

In the last few steps, the idea of a niche has developed as an ecologically-based component of selection. A niche is a place to live and a way to surface with respect to food, water, protection, and any other needs of organisms. A rule of evolutionary biology is that, given a niche, members of a taxon will evolve to compete for that niche. So that, given a forest, which emerges from the evolution of trees and plants, arboreal animals including mammals will evolve to occupy that niche. They could be climbing or flying mammals, finding food in the niche as fruit eaters, leaf eaters, insectivores, or predators of other arboreal animals. Living in the trees places certain requirements on a species, such as location of the eyes for stereoscopic vision, grasping hands, feet, and tail, and use of the tail for balance. And so, from the emergence of forests and the presence of stem mammals, the arboreal mammals emerged: they are insectivores, bats, and prosimians. The selection principle was survival in the forest ecosystem.

p34, The Emergence of Everything, Harold Morowitz

We are arboreal animals. Just as we used to live in the ocean, we began to live in the tree. To move into the tree, we can't see it as a bush of branches, a tangle, we have to be able to meet it on its own terms. To treat the tree as a first class object, we must have visible its self-similarity. The buds that appear on sun-facing tips over time must be as real and contiguous as the face of a cube. We have to move with it and let it move us as simply as a lever. We have to become enmeshed. We fit into its hollows, an embrace: the tree has shaped us.

This is a metaphor to live by at a level below Lakoff's. Just as we see a face in colondee, and obscured objects are still the same object, our mind filling-in, we preferentially filter for tree-behaviour. Our minds are formed that way.

We see roots, branches, repetition. We can climb through abstraction layers. We feel precarious balancing on precarious stacks. I bet our complexity exchange limit on the number of nested clauses in language is the same as the number of branches we needed to navigate between trunk landmarks. (Or at least, that was the limit of our working memory before the language cascade took over.)

To comprehend the forest, we believe contradictory things. Trees are like all trees, and can all be treated the same - the spectacular view - but every tree is different because it affords different fruit, different climbing.

We impose the forest on everything we encounter. We immediately search for striations to climb like ladders, to get a better view from the top of the abstraction canopy. We follow lines of flight of logic like running along branches, swinging on vines of intuition. I imagine the newly-arboreal primate, looking at a rock and a fist and simultaneously seeing their sameness and unique properties.

It's what makes us human, but it also constrains us. We're too keen to see only abstractions (what the thing affords, how the thing responds). We're industrial. We like mass production. We're not good at differences, at altering our behaviour to conform with context, or microsurface. We habituate. We force the world to be shaped like us. We see only surfaces, we're always on the outside of the universe.

So we envy the dog, a mammal from the plains. The dog manages to see past the spectacular world of surfaces and what objects look like, into the world of objects practicing with one another. The dog lets its consciousness inhabit the landscape. No cognition or reaction, just being and becoming, following trains of thought, navigating meshworks.

The dog can't abstract, it's not arboreal. Abstraction is pointers, separating the sign and the signified. Humans point; dogs stare at the tip of your finger. Instead, the dog imposes sameness by using scent markers, by adding to the complexity of the world, not bashing it into shape. The scent markers aren't signs to be read, they're maximally complex, not a reductive symbol, they're first-class citizens in a world already composed of scent. So the dog travels along the surfaces of the world, embedded, always with the grain, a craftsmanlike life. The dog is our shamen.

On the other hand, we have nothing in common with the whale. In a world with only one surface, the whale lives in a world of intensities. No landmarks, only gradients, tendencies. And no time or space as temporary surface-condensations flutter, are stretched and folded, evaporate. The whale is a thoroughly Deleuzian animal.