Birth of Univironmental Determinism
Wilderness love can get you out of the office just when it is needed, even if you don't know that it is needed. Showers Lake, in the high Sierra, is one such needed place. Before venturing to the Sierras, I had been contemplating philosophical questions—big ones like the universe exploding out of nothing, which was a hot topic round about 1977, as it still is today. Like many others, who consider themselves deceived by Genesis, I just could not get my head around that thought. The whole universe supposedly was expanding rapidly into a sort of 4-dimensional space-time. I remember that one of my feeble attempts to make sense of it involved thoughts of intersecting light beams creating new matter as they extended from various galaxies at the outer edge of the universe.
As a devotee of soil science, I had studied quite a bit of biology as well. Everything in biology eventually gets down to evolution. Darwin said that biological entities were subject to all sorts of nasty stuff in the environment. That mechanism, “natural selection,” ignored the fit and destroyed the unfit. A seed in fertile soil would produce a much healthier plant than one in infertile soil. With Mendel’s discovery of genetics, it became clear that it was more than just the environment that affected what happened to an organism. There had to be something inside that carried over to the next generation. This combination of environment and genes, dubbed “Neo-Darwinism,” remains the official mechanism of evolution. Strictly speaking, of course, it only applies to things that have genes.
An especially interesting aspect of soils is that they appear to evolve too. My specialty is “pedochronology,” the age dating of soils. Young soils, such as those along streams, tend to be gray or black, while old soils, such as those in the hills, tend to be brown or red. Over time, percolating water picks up clays from the surface, depositing them in the subsurface. The thicker the resulting clay films become, the older the soil. Over a hundred soil properties change with age. We called the process “pedogenesis” or “soil development.” We did not call it “Neo-Darwinism”—no genes, after all. Moreover, we avoided calling it “soil evolution,” for reasons of which we were mostly unaware.
Back to the trip... As usual, Showers Lake was especially beautiful, with shores of nearly white granite surrounding the dark blue. There was little wind and the temperature was ideal. Getting back to nature, of course, does not immediately rid one of the concerns of the day, but it does impose itself. Showers Lake had tall trees and short trees. I got to thinking. Why was this? Exactly what controlled how tall a tree would be? Why fifty or a hundred feet? Why not a thousand feet? I knew the answers just like I knew the answers for soils. Everything is controlled by everything else. The big ones shade out the little ones and the wind eventually knocks down the big ones. But there is knowing something and there is really, really knowing something. Fact is, every portion of the universe experienced what these trees and soils experienced. Rocks evolved, Earth evolved, the solar system and the Milky Way evolved. People evolved and whole societies evolved. In each, the controls for these changes were exerted from within and without. It was how the universe worked, but there were no words for it.
Later, back in civilization, I got to talking with my friend Elizabeth. We needed a word that focused not merely on a portion of the universe, but on how that portion interacted with the rest of it. Systems philosophy was all the rage at the time, but “systems” would not do. Systems were too microcosmic, with their overemphasis on the thing and the tendency to ignore the environment. Now, in science, we have an assumption that we must use even though we can never prove it completely: there are material causes for all effects. It is what makes us determinists and what makes us successful. I mentioned to Elizabeth that there once was something called “environmental determinism.” It was sort of the opposite of systems philosophy in that it ignored the thing and overemphasized the environment (just like Darwin did with his natural selection). We needed a unification of the two that would emphasize both equally. I do not know which one of us thought of it, but the appropriate word was “univironment” (yew-nee-viron-ment). The eventual result was univironmental determinism, the observation that what happens to a portion of the universe is determined by the matter within and without. It is the universal mechanism of evolution.
Univironmental determinism is important because it applies to all things—including you. If you do not like your present life, change your environment. Do not expect to think your way out of every problem. Get out of the office, to the woods, to the library, to new friends. This has worked wonderfully for me. After working out some of the most important implications of univironmental determinism, I have written what many consider a revolutionary opus on scientific philosophy. Best of all, I am no longer perplexed by the silly idea that the universe exploded out of nothing. My book, "The Scientific Worldview," has set the stage for Infinite Universe Theory, which I predict will replace the Big Bang Theory within the next few decades. It turns out that communing with nature and understanding the universe have much in common.