For most of us, metaphors are merely figures of speech, something used to spruce up the end of a sentence—hardly the kind of tool one might enlist in saving the living world. Yet these simple expressions comparing one thing to another thing turn out to be more powerful than we could ever have imagined. Beginning with a ground-breaking 1980 book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson(1), linguists and psychologists have demonstrated conclusively that we literally think in metaphors, using these abstract comparisons to make sense of our world. Consider the metaphor “time is money.” By speaking of wasting time, budgeting time, or living on borrowed time, we make it clear that time for us is a valuable commodity. The notion of time as money is a relatively recent one closely linked to Western cultures, and not to many others past and present. We internalize hundreds of these conceptual metaphors—for example, argument is war, affection is warmth, and up is good—during development, and they become the lenses through which we see and understand reality. The beauty and danger of metaphors is that most of the time we use them unconsciously. But it is high time we took greater notice because, although metaphors help us navigate our way through the world, they can also cause us to accept inaccurate concepts or beliefs as “real.”
For the past four centuries, the machine has served as the dominant metaphor for life, causing us to regard organisms as amalgamations of parts. Although this reductionist perspective has generated tremendous insights—among them the germ theory of disease and the genetic basis of all life—the life-as-machine metaphor also transforms organisms into objects, fueling the notion that humans are meant to dominate nature. With a mechanistic mindset, forests become board feet of lumber and oceans are reduced to fisheries, hardly a recipe for sustainable living. Today the machine metaphor remains largely unchallenged, perpetuating a dysfunctional relationship between human and non-human life. And, as argued by numerous authors, this relationship threatens to bring down civilization itself.
The only commonly used alternative at present is the web of life, a metaphor that directs much-needed attention at wholes rather than parts, highlighting the myriad interconnections that embed humans into the living world. The web of life is a powerful and evocative symbol(2). Yet it does little to challenge the nature of being indicated by a mechanistic worldview. On the contrary, since it is generally defined only in terms of causal connections, the web metaphor often reinforces this age-old perspective, with organisms serving as the cogs and pulleys that keep the ecosystem “machine” running smoothly.
I am convinced that we are in desperate need of additional metaphors that more accurately represent the living world—and specifically the nature of being—as we understand it in the 21st Century. One possibility with considerable potential is what I have called the whirlpool of life. Everything flows, from air, water, atoms, and blood to apparently dense and unyielding things, like rocks, trees, and mountains. Particularly when we shift focus to atomic levels or geologic timescales, the internal make-up of things turns out to be ever-shifting, like river currents. Akin to whirlpools, organisms can be envisioned as swirling, evanescent concentrations of energy with poorly-defined boundaries that arise from the background flow, exist for a brief time, and then dissipate back into that flow. We are not merely interconnected with the natural world but derived from it, constantly re-making ourselves from the energy of the flow while retaining much the same form. In essence, then, the whirlpool of life is a dual metaphor of both river and whirlpool. Like the machine, the swirling whirlpool represents the focal level of interest (say, cell, organism, or ecosystem). And like the web, the flowing river provides the background context (for example, the organism surrounding the cell, or the ecosystem encompassing the organism). The river also exemplifies the passage of deep time, as well as the force that connects all things into a single, unified story, from the Big Bang to the present day.
If the downward spiral of a whirlpool initially conjures up negative connotations, think about how energy flows through you. Just like other animals, we consume air, water, and food that spiral downward to sustain our bodies before dissipating back into the environment in a degraded form. As I stated in the kick-off essay for this blog, “the notion of a river whirlpool fosters very different, yet highly instructive and scientifically accurate, conceptions of birth (emergence, evolution), of life (flow, transience, continual self-making), and of death (dissipation, transformation, recycling). In contrast to the still dominant machine and web metaphors, the whirlpool encourages us to view other life forms not as objects, but as subjects—fellow travelers in the current of this deep time river. On a still more profound level, a vortex perspective enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as ‘things’ at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow. In sum, [this metaphor] has potential to be at least as striking and potent as the web of life, directing much needed attention toward the flowing, transitory, and transformative aspects of nature and being.”
I am certainly not the first to compare life to whirlpools. Consider this 1950 statement from mathematician Norbert Weiner(3,4).
"Pattern is the “organized complexity” from which all life was assembled and human beings ultimately emerged. That pattern of organization is the touchstone of our personal identity. Our tissues change as we live; the food we eat and the air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone...We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides but patterns that perpetuate themselves."
To my knowledge, however, no one has proposed the whirlpool as a metaphor to challenge the hegemony of the machine. A great strength of the whirlpool, I would argue, is that, like the web, it is a familiar aspect of nature. Its primary symbol, the spiral, is also a common natural phenomenon, from unfurled ferns(5) to swirling tornadoes to immense galaxies. Additionally, the spiral is an ancient, almost ubiquitous cross-cultural symbol that resonates deeply in the human subconscious(6). This motif appears, for example, in Celtic monuments, Arabic architecture, Japanese rock gardens, Greek mythology, Australian aboriginal paintings, Native American petroglyphs, and African art. Spirals have often been used to represent flow and change--including the cycling of days, seasons, and entire lives—as well as physical and spiritual journeys. I am not proposing that the whirlpool replace the machine as the dominant metaphor; we will need many additional examples to help us through the present eco-crisis. Nevertheless, a spiraling whirlpool within a flowing river may just be a fitting symbol for humanity’s journey into an uncertain future.
References and Notes
1) Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2) Capra, F. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books, New York.
3) Weiner, N. 1950. The Human Use of Human Beings. Houghton Mifflin, New York (quotation, p. 96).
4) Thanks to my friend Antonio Pares for bringing this quotation to my attention.
5) Fern image is from: http://livingyogavt.com/images/fern_spiral.jpg
6) Ward, G. 2006. Spirals: The Pattern of Existence. Green Magic, Somerset, UK.