Environmental Under-determinism, Part 2

In my post last week I voiced the concern that rejecting the dualist separation between nature and society might lead to an implausible environmental determinism. To put it reductively, if nature and society are not two separate things, but only one thing with two separate names, it seems as if we should think of social phenomena as really natural phenomena, just as many people think of mental phenomena as really phenomena in the brain (or perhaps the body as a whole). This seems to imply that social phenomena could be given strictly natural explanations. But that seems implausible, motivating the search for a different conception of the relation between nature and society.

This is the conception I’d like to spec out under the name “environmental under-determinism;” I’ve got two goals for it. On the one hand, I’d like to provide an alternative to dualism; this is why the name retains (but modifies) the word determinism. Thus, the conception denies that society and nature are ontologically distinct things1—holding instead something like the view that what we have called society and nature are distinguishable aspects of a single thing: an intensely complex system of interactions among organisms and their environment.

On the other hand, the conception I envision also denies that descriptions of a society can be reduced to descriptions of its environment in any systematic way; this is where the “under” in the name comes in. Though we might be able to better understand particular facts about a society (its history, economy, or culture, for example) by reference to facts about its environment, we can’t go in the other direction: knowing a set of facts about an environment doesn’t provide enough information for us to deduce a full understanding of any society within it. The environmental facts, that is, under-determine the facts about society—an additional layer, incorporating distinctively social concepts, is required to provide a satisfactory explanation of those social facts.2

Environmental under-determinism has intuitive appeal to me—it just strikes me as correct, maybe even obvious. Still I’d like to suggest a possible explanation of why social phenomena are underdetermined by the environment—and in particular, I’d like to connect the idea with the discussions of habitation that have been a focus of this blog. As I indicated last week, I think that two ideas of Adam Smith’s turn out to be very helpful here.

So, how does the question we’ve pursued apply to the question of habitation? A determinist view would hold that the condition of a habitat more or less determines the character of the habitation that will occur there. Think of this in terms of the niche concept, presented in this post by Ingo. The core idea of a niche is that a given species has certain metabolic requirements; if the physical conditions at a location provide resources that fulfill those requirements, members of the species can live there. In that sense, facts about the environment determine what species of organisms are able to inhabit it; to use Ingo’s example, the presence of cold, oxygenated water makes it possible for trout to inhabit a stream.

This account of niches is admittedly simplistic—not least because it takes the character of habitat as given in advance of its habitation. That is, it ignores niche construction, a phenomenon discussed frequently on this blog (see this reading post on a key article on the topic). Niche Construction Theory points out that, rather than, so to speak, setting an agenda stipulating which organisms can occupy it, a niche is, at least in part, determined by the organisms that occupy it. Thus, the presence of a pond does not determine that beavers will be present there—the presence of the pond is determined by presence of the beavers. Now of course the beavers have to work with pre-existing features of the landscape: there has to be a stream for them to dam up. So the character of the beavers’ habitat is the result of a dialectical process involving the landscape and the species. And of course landscapes are generally inhabited by many species. Thus the character of the landscape is a result of immensely complex dynamic interactions among the inorganic elements and various niche constructors present.3 But note, the notion of habitat as constructed niche here is explicitly not a dualistic conception: it integrates (as Hegel would put it, “aufhebens”) the factors dualism puts in opposition, environment and organism.

As the product of the preeminent niche constructing species, human habitat is likewise conceived non-dualistically, i.e. as the resultant of a complex set of interactions among ontologically uniform elements. But there is a key difference between the human and non-human cases: whereas (typically) members of a given non-human species will satisfy their metabolic needs in more or less the same way, human beings can satisfy theirs in a variety of ways. For example (I hope this is not too much of a caricature) whereas beavers always obtain a water supply by building dams, human beings can build dams or dig wells or collect rainwater or build desalination plants. In general, for human beings the same landscape can be used to satisfy needs in many ways: the environment constrains but does not determine the human niche, which can be constructed in qualitatively distinct ways from the same environmental materials, where qualitatively distinct niches are alike in that they fulfill the function of providing for human survival, but different in the different ways that function is instantiated.4

And this is where the first idea from Adam Smith comes in. For Smith observes a crucial difference between human and animal life, namely that humans appear to have a set of needs over-and-above those due to their metabolism (I suppose this is a difference in degree rather than in kind). In his Lectures on Jurisprudence (“LJ”), Smith argues that “As the delicacey of a man’s body requires much greater provision than that of any other animal, the same or rather the much greater delicacey of his mind requires a still greater provision” (LJ B, 208). These “mental” needs should not be understood as being for objects unrelated to metabolic survival, which Smith emphasizes is the core goal of all human activity (“All the severall arts and businesses in life tend to render the conveniencies and necessaries of life more attainable” (LJ A, vi.20-21)). Rather, they reflect a need that the items by which we gain survival in addition provide us aesthetic pleasure, in virtue of features that might not contribute to our survival directly. Thus, he argues, “Man alone of all animalls on this globe is the only one who regards the differences of things which no way affect their real substance or give them no superior advantage in supplying the wants of nature” (LJ A, vi.12-13, emph. added).

Though these “differences of things” are not functional in a metabolic sense—they make no difference to survival—due to human “delicacey” they motivate a second stage of human niche construction. Smith is mistaken to attribute basic niche construction to human beings alone—in fact the basic process he describes (see this post) is, as noted, carried out by many other species as well. What is in fact unique to humanity (as far as I know) is what comes next: after the human being’s bare survival is obtained “This way of life appears rude and slovenly and can no longer satisfy him; he seeks after more elegant nicities and refinement” (LJ A, vi.12). It is at this point that the production of differences that make no difference to metabolic survival becomes the hallmark of (what we now would call) distinctively human niche construction, which Smith sees as the business of civilization. “The whole industry of human life is employed not in procuring the supply of our three humble necessities, food, cloaths, and lodging, but in procuring the conveniences of it according to the nicety [and] delicacey of our taste. To improve and multiply the materials which are the principal objects of our necessities, gives occasion to all the variety of the arts” (LJ B, 208-209).

The second idea from Smith enters here. For he recognizes that this second stage of human niche construction is necessarily a social enterprise. The initial stage of the minimal transformations of the environment needed to ensure organic survival can be accomplished, he argues, “by the industry of each individual” (LJ A, vi.12). But it is to produce goods distinguished by aesthetic (but non-functional) differences that “almost the whole of the arts and sciences have been invented and improved” (LJ A, vi.16). And this implies intensive and extensive social cooperation, mediated through an economy based on division of labor and exchange. This indeed is the point of Smith’s famous comparison of “the way of life of an ordinary day-labourer in England or Holland to that of a savage prince:”

this man, whom we falsly account to live in a simple and plain manner, is far better supplied than the monarch himself. Every part of his cloathing, utensils, and food has been produced by the joint labour of an infinite number of hands, and these again required a vast number to provide them in tools for their respective employments. (LJ A, vi.25)

Further, by means of this system of exchange—the market—surplus production can be traded for the surplus of other regions. Thus, despite not being in a locale suited to growing grapes, the Scottish niche includes sherry and madeira: “To Spain and Portugall we send our superfluous corn and bring from thence the Spainish and Portuguese wines” (LJ A, i. 32). Smith comprehends, in other words, that human beings use the social institutions of the market to construct niches that are increasingly undetermined by their own local environmental conditions.

With these two ideas, I believe, Smith gives us an understanding both of why, in a non-dualist world, environmental under-determinism is possible, and how the gap between the environment and the way societies live in it opens, and can get wider over time. The character of social life—culture—is not fully determined by the environment, because there are multiple ways for human beings to make use of the resources in their environment to provide for their survival. And as societies develop, in particular by developing economies based on specialization and exchange, they become more and more capable of providing ways of life that are not reliant solely on the resources found in their own locales. Under-determination, that is, has a history—it is an accomplishment which runs alongside humanity’s increasing niche construction capacities.5 It is in that gap, that space where determination by the environment falls short, that the layer of other more distinctively social explanations of human history might be found.


  1. Manuel Arias-Maldonado develops this point very nicely in his recent book, Environment and Society: Socionatural Relations in the Anthropocene (Springer, 2015), esp. chapter 3
  2. A way of putting this idea is that social phenomena are “emergent properties” of the system of interactions I mentioned. And, in terms of the analogy to the relation between mind and body, the idea of environmental under-determinism is analogous to the view made famous within Philosophy by Donald Davidson, anomalous monism (see the Further Readings in my recent post). 
  3. I discuss this understanding of landscape in “The Anthropocene, Ethics, and the Nature of Nature,” Telos 172 (Fall 2015), pp. 49-50 
  4. The “type/token” distinction is helpful here: the following two characters (“tokens”), T and t, look different, but they are both instances of the same letter (the “type”). 
  5. Manuel argues persuasively for the historicity of the human separation from nature. 
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One thought on “Environmental Under-determinism, Part 2

  1. This, in tandem with the previous post, is an excellent reflection on a topic that has interested me (thanks for the reference!) for a long time. This concept of “environmental under-determinism” seems to me a very brilliant one to convey the way in which human societies relate to their environments -a relationship through which an emergent dualism is indeed created out of an initial ontological unity. Your use of Adam Smith is very clever, since this crucial fact -that human beings do have different needs than animals- is frequently overlooked. However, I recall some pages wherein Tim Hayward discussed this question in relation (if I remember this correctly) with some Ted Benton’s observations. The quarrel concerned whether human different needs are qualitatively different from those of animals or just some refinement of the latter. Ultimately, the question is moot, since what is relevant here is just the fact that those different needs account for a social variability vis-a-vis the environment that helps to explain the particularities of the socionatural relation and, crucially, puts a limits to the degree in which human beings can “go back to nature” as a means to achieve sustainability. Yet at the same time it is that very social condition what makes sustainability conceivable in the first place, due to the self-reflectivity that the human species is gaining regarding its own exchanges with imbrications with nature.

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