Harbinger Vol. 3 No. 1 — Buttercups and Sunflowers: On the Evolution of First and Second Nature




by Sonja Schmitz

One remarkable feature of social ecology is that Murray Bookchin’s vision of an ecological society goes beyond the development of eco-technologies and organic agriculture, but expands into the philosophical realm through dialectical naturalism. Murray recognizes the importance of healing the seemingly disparate relationship between nature and culture (first and second nature) by reminding us of the developmental relationship between them (dialectical naturalism). Through his discourses on dialectical naturalism, Murray invites the participation of ecologists, biologists, and scientists generally involved in the subject of evolution. The following essay is a critique of one aspect of dialectical naturalism. It is an attempt and also an invitation to other social ecologists, to develop and refine Murray’s important and provocative work on the relationship between nature and culture.

For Murray, dialectical naturalism serves as a potential source of objective ethics for developing ecological societies as demonstrated by the following quote:

Today we may well be able to permit Nature—not God or Spirit or an Élan Vital—to open itself up to us as the ground for an ethics on its own terms. Contemporary sciences’ greatest achievement is the growing evidence it provides that randomness is subject to a directive ordering principle, mutualism is good by virtue of its fostering the evolution of natural variety and complexity.1

If there are indeed trends or universal laws that determine the evolution of first nature, then humans should derive ethics based upon these principles. Murray is particularly interested in those trends that are compatible with anarchist principles. An ecological society would be based upon a harmonious existence within its eco-community (ecosystem)2 by fostering mutualistic and non-hierarchical relationships (mutualism), diversity (variation) and self-organization (autopoeisis). In accordance with dialectical naturalism, an ecological society would, in general, maximize the opportunities for unfettered directionality toward greater complexity, diversity, and subjectivity. Murray’s ecological society takes the form of libertarian municipalism, the assemblage of multiple self-governing communities into a complex of confederations. The complexity of the confederation allows for a cultural diversity that facilitates freedom by diminishing racism, classism, and any other “isms” that act to oppress and suppress the potentialities latent within individuals of the human species.

As a student of social ecology and one trying to integrate my background as a biologist, I was drawn to the question of whether nature could provide a basis for deriving ethics. Scientists have been searching for universal laws in evolutionary biology ever since Darwin. The search represents a contemporary chapter in the historical quest for universal laws in the physical and chemical sciences. Aside from the satisfaction of understanding the world around us, there are, after all, practical reasons for deriving laws—they allow us to make predictions. In the ecological sciences they provide a basis for reconstructing ecosystems (restoration ecology) and inform decisions regarding the conservation and management of wildlife. The laws that determine evolution are not as easily subject to testing by the scientific method as in ecology, nor is their practicality obvious. In evolutionary science the trends are more philosophical in nature: (1) whether the tempo of evolution is rapid or gradual (punctuated equilibrium vs. gradualism), (2) whether evolution is goal-oriented and (3) whether evolution proceeds by an increase in complexity and diversity.

Murray’s argument that nature has directionality toward ever-greater complexity and diversity initially struck me as provocative, if not problematic. The existence of multicellular plants and animals is often used to argue that evolution proceeds by an increase in complexity. Evolutionary biology is still in the process of describing the extraordinary leap life took in its transitions from prokaryotic cells (bacteria) to the first eukaryotic cells (protists) and from these single celled organisms to multicellular fungi, plants and animals. One can interpret this progression favorably by emphasizing the cooperative, communal, and mutualistic tendencies required by these transitions, which is what Murray Bookchin does. Murray wants to equate the evolution of a confederation of multiple self-governing communities with the evolution of multicellular organisms. There is however, a darker side to this progression. The evolution of complex life forms is a story rife with tension between the autonomy of the individual cell and the drive to assemble into communities of cells for the sake of survival. This in itself is not incompatible with social ecology. But, the assemblage of autonomous beings is usually accompanied by the reduction of the individual into specialized and compartmentalized functions, words that conjure images of authoritarian communism and fascist political regimes. Therefore, I would like to examine whether it is indeed desirable to derive ethics from what biologists “know” about the evolution of first nature.

The endosymbiotic theory proposed by Lynn Margulis suggests that the evolution of eukaryotic cells may well have occurred by the ingestion (but incomplete digestion) of one bacterium by another about 1.5 million years ago (mya).3 In the process, the undifferentiated soup of molecules that comprised the guts of bacterial cells was organized into an assemblage of specialized compartments called organelles, each with a separate function much like our own organs. The resulting eukaryotic cell harbors remnants of its prokaryotic ancestors, mitochondria and chloroplasts, once intact, autonomous individuals, now dependent upon and part of a greater assemblage. Therefore, the evolution of the eukaryotic cell occurred at the expense of autonomous bacterial cells, which are mere vestiges of what they once were (mitochondria and chloroplasts).

The next level of differentiation involves the assemblage of single celled eukaryotes (protists) into colonies of cells and the first multicellular organisms. Biologists see evidence of this transition in some algal species like Volvox. Volvox consists of a hollow sphere made up of a single layer of 500 to 60,000 flagellated cells that function in photosynthesis and in the motility of the colony. Other cells in the Volvox community function solely in reproduction (sex cells). This multicellular community operates as a result of the simultaneous specialization of function of individual cells and a division of labor among them. The next step is the organization of hundreds of thousands of cells into tissues and organ systems. Not much is known about how this transition occurred, but multicellular invertebrate animals with organ systems suddenly appear in the fossil record about 700 mya (Ediacara, Australia). Nevertheless, the same themes of reduction and specialization are observed in the evolution of multicellular fungi, plants and animals.

An example from the plant kingdom, the buttercup and the sunflower, will illustrate how the themes of specialization and reduction resurface in the evolution of complex multicellular organisms. The buttercup flower is considered primitive, meaning it is one of the earliest flower structures observed in the fossil record and several million years older than the sunflower lineage. (There are more ancient lineages among flowering plants, but I am choosing the buttercup lineage because everyone can picture them). Each part of the flower is distinguishable and together comprises a reproductive organ—the buttercup flower. It has five green sepals, five yellow petals, many single stamens (male flower parts) and many pistils (female flower parts) that develop into little fruits called achenes. Upon initial inspection, the sunflower does not appear much different. It has many green sepals, yellow petals, stamens, and pistils. Although the sunflower looks like a buttercup, its structure is deceivingly different. The sunflower is a community of individual flowers, each with a specialized reproductive function. The outer flowers each have one yellow petal; their pistils and stamens are inactive or nonexistent. On the other hand, the petals of the inner flowers have been fused into a yellow tube; and their pistils and stamens are still functional. The outer flowers with petals function to attract pollinators, while the inner tubular flowers produce seed.

The buttercup and the sunflower represent two levels of complexity. The buttercup is a simple flower with many parts that produces many seeds, while the sunflower is a community of many individual flowers with specialized functions, each producing a single seed. The buttercup is an autonomous individual capable of reproduction, while individuals of the mega-sunflower community cannot function autonomously anymore, and must reproduce as a unit.

I have often thought that Murray’s libertarian municipalism is like the sunflower; each self-governing municipality is a single flower, while the mega-sunflower community represents the confederation. But, upon closer examination, the analogy is inadequate. The evolution of complexity in plants is not compatible with, nor can it be equated with, the kind of complexity and diversity Murray envisions as facilitating freedom in his libertarian municipalities. The sort of reduction, specialization, and loss of autonomy observed in the evolution of multicellular organisms is more compatible with the functioning of a nation state or fascist political regime. Therefore the evolution of complexity has outcomes frighteningly compatible with political regimes that do not embrace the ideas of social ecology. If the buttercup and the sunflower are interpreted as examples of the evolution of complexity, do we want to cite this trend for constructing ecological societies or confederations?

Perhaps it is inappropriate to compare the evolution of plants with the evolution of human social systems. While trends in the evolutionary process can be identified, they are not universal and do not necessarily apply across all lineages of life. Each of the five kingdoms is on a separate evolutionary trajectory, as is each phylum in the animal genealogy. Even if we were to limit our examination to mammals or primates, is it appropriate to extend the “laws” or principles of first nature and superimpose them upon cultural evolution? I would argue that because cultural evolution is uniquely human, and not a generalized trend among other lineages, the trends observed in first nature do not necessarily apply to second nature.

Although Murray applauds science in its achievements in illuminating the role of mutualism, diversity, complexity (and other anarchist tendencies); evolutionary biology is only beginning to yield under the scrutiny of the scientific method, or in other words, provide an objective inquiry into the laws of evolution. The exploration into the evolution of complexity has left me with grave doubts as to whether social ecologists want to derive ethics from first nature. My doubts however, do not diminish my desire to construct societies on the basis of mutualism and diversity. Perhaps the themes of mutualism and diversity hold up better under examination than does the evolution of complexity.

In summary, this essay raises two separate yet related questions. Can we derive an objective ethics from the trends or laws of first nature? And if such trends, principles or universal laws do exist, is it appropriate or even desirable to cite them for the construction of ecological human societies? I reserve an examination into these questions for future essays and invite other social ecologists to join in the inquiry.


  1. Murray Bookchin, “Toward a Philosophy of Nature” in The Philosophy of Social Ecology (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995), p. 64.
  2. Scientific terminology is in parenthesis
  3. Lynn Margulis, Early Life (Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers Inc., 1984), p. 75-104.