Responsive Cohesion and the Value of Wild Nature

John H. Brown

Environmental aesthetics has been approached from a number of directions, some derived from familiar views of aesthetic experience and others resolutely separatist. The latter include calls for appreciating nature “on its own terms.” This formula covers important differences. One is inspired in part by empathy for natural things, an aversion to what is described as anthropocentrism, and an insistence that “aesthetic experience begins and ends with the sensuous surface.” 1 Another is more intellectual, its spiritual forebear being 18th century Scottish natural theology that finds God's handiwork admirable. Its battle cry is “order.” Allen Carlson (2000) argues that proper appreciation of nature, paradigmatically wild nature, necessarily focuses on the character of the object of appreciation, and that since natural things preeminently exemplify a complex causal order , the appreciation of natural things at any level is appropriate only if their order is a prime focus of attention. This message is repeated in Carlson and Parsons (2004) where a new “formalist” version of the sensuous surface approach is combated. Here the claim is phrased in terms of the properties that most deeply express the character of things, as opposed to their sensuous surface. 2 These and other recent essays (Carlson 2002, 2006) help focus the problem more sharply and collectively bring the controversies to a fever pitch.

I agree with the view that the order of natural things is a proper focus of aesthetic appreciation of them, even if fleshing out a theory of their aesthetic value requires many additions and qualifications. What may be called systemic beauty has captured attention since the rise of scientific study of natural systems, beginning with the human. The flowering of the biological sciences has vastly expanded and deepened recognition of the impressive systematicity of organisms on three levels: as individuals, as members of species, and as players in ecosystems. To have come to exist and to have survived is no mean feat. Amazingly intricate patterns of parts and functions are needed to pull it off. Unquestionably these patterns are reasonable objects of admiration, and what reason can be found for denying that such admiration is aesthetic? 3 Hence we arrive at an ontological proof of the systemic beauty of organisms, species and ecosystems: Existence entails viability within the habitat of origin; viability entails a high degree of internal organization together with some capacity of resistance and resilience with regard to environmental stress; hence every viable individual, species and ecosystem possess a significant degree of systemic beauty. By the same token, systemic beauty fails in organisms to the extent that disease or deformity blights form and degrades functionality. Admiration for systemic natural beauty cannot but grow as we absorb the prodigious advances in scientific understanding of natural systems which is now flooding in from evolutionary developmental biology. The stupendous intricacy of organism-building over the past 500 million years is one wonder. The simplicity and uniformity of the basic genetic tool kit is another. 4

Yet as impressive as is the systemic beauty of all viable natural systems, it is hard not to believe that within the truly vast gamut of extant species (10-100 million), to say nothing of the enormous number of extinct species, there are highly significant differences of degree. Surely, that natural organisms, species and ecosystems are systemically beautiful may be admitted without foreclosing the possibility of significant differences of eminence. In something of the same way all competent Renaissance paintings have a significant degree of aesthetic value, but this by no means ends the search for the preeminently beautiful of that kind. Accordingly a chief aim of order aesthetics must be to provide a basis of distinction, just as is the case with any species of beauty. To cultivate aesthetic appreciation is to cultivate fine discrimination of comparative aesthetic value.

The problem with order aesthetics to date, as I see it, lies at precisely this point. Nothing like a well articulated understanding of comparative order-values has been put forward. On the contrary Carlson (2000) initially s ought to downplay the relevance of such an understanding, suggesting that the order exemplified by all “normal” natural things is equally, or nearly equally, beautiful or aesthetically positive. 5 This leveling tendency of what Carlson has dubbed “positive nature aesthetics” is inherently implausible, as Carlson himself has come to admit. (Carlson 2006) . If it were true, it would be a wonder exceeding all other wonders, one that would, in my view, paralyze serious aesthetic theorizing. For theorizing must proceed by identifying beauty-making properties. And what ensemble of properties could bring it about that every species was approximately as beautiful as every other? Any contention to th is effect is certainly in need of robust proof. A prerequisite of proof is an account of the specific beauty-making properties possessed in various degrees by different natural systems, supplemented by illustrations of representative types of natural systems. Positive nature aesthetics therefore can be sustained by a showing that no counterexamples to its thesis exist. And this requires a sustained search for significant differences of aesthetic value in actual or hypothetical natural systems. To leap to the conclusion of near equality is to incur the suspicion of having yielded to the familiar syndrome of natural piety. In the heyday of natural religion this tendency was inevitable, and that connection cast a long shadow in recent discussions, for instance in the idea that ugliness in nature is somehow morally bad. Only when cleansed of that red herring, can a dispassionate inquiry into the actual bases of beauty in nature become possible.

A consequence of any leveling tendency of positive nature aesthetics should give its advocates pause. For if systemic beauty attaches to species and ecosystems without much distinction, then that aspect of beauty can be disregarded in discriminating among levels of beauty in nature. The distinction between the usual and the truly splendid must be made entirely on other grounds. But this seems implausible. We are not unfamiliar with domains of aesthetic interest where all rivals meet high standards: professional basketball is one. In such cases we find in small differences a source of highly differentiated valuation and the dimensions of excellence producing these discriminations are precisely the same as gained the contenders admission to the contest in the first place. We do not shift to other values, the stylishness of the clothing or sex appeal of the players. If assessing natural order is subject to a different logic, some explanation is in order.

The search for dimensions of order within natural causal ity encounters the by-words of the 18 th century thinkers, viz. uniformity and variety. In brief the idea was that natural things are splendidly various in the aspects of uniformity contained within them. Things possessing richly various sorts of uniformity, the sorts also displaying overarching uniformity, are plausibly viewed as more beautiful than things less richly endowed. Francis Hutcheson surveyed a large number of examples in which a number of uniformities c an be found. But his account is suspiciously bent on veneration, seeki ng goodness everywhere, seeing no evil because he wish es n one. The epistemically acute reader is bound to yearn for a more Humean i mpartiality which can at least press the question: is the natural world the most beautiful conceivable, or is it rife with imperfections, as if produc ed by a fractious committee of godlings? 6 Further, the concepts of uniformity and variety suggest prima facie an emphasis on form rather than process, whereas the natural order is prima facie an affair of process as well as structure. Further, both form and process in nature are quasi-telic, that is, subservient to a good that relates importantly to the flourishing of living organisms. It does not relate merely to cognitive goods, e.g., to ease of comprehension. In this way it has more content than is suggested by a criterion as abstract or formalistic and welfare-indifferent as uniformity and variety.


Where are we to find an improvement on the suspiciously abstract criteri on of uniformity and variety? A recent suggestion has been made the central thesis of a book announcing itself as a theory of general ethics, but which I believe deserves to be regarded as a theory of general value , embracing aesthetics . This is Warwick Fox's 2006 book A Theory of General Ethics . Herein the author propounds the thesis t t hat the most fundamental value for all domains, fundamental in part because intrinsic, 7 is a relation he calls responsive cohesion (when convenient I will refer to nominal and adjectival forms as RC). This applies not just to morality but to intellectual and aesthetic domains as well. Indeed on its face the criterion is in a fundamental respect aesthetic. For since the value applies not just to the moral agents but to human culture and all nature, sentient, insentient and even inanimate, there is no way, so far as I can see, that it can be other than aesthetic. That it can ground ethical choices does not count against its fundamentally aesthetic character. Hence I shall follow my particular interest and explore the viability of Fox's fundamental principle purely as a conception of aesthetic value, without intending in the slightest to compromise the importance of its ethical derivatives. My exploration proceeds in two stages. First I try to work out some of the concepts it involves. Then I examine its application to environmental aesthetics, specifically to the aesthetic value of wild nature. Fox's approach evokes recollections of traditional theories in which uniformity and diversity were taken to be the key beauty-making characteristics in the context of natural theology and particularly theodicy. Fox's central value of responsive cohesion sounds like a more sophisticated descendant of those earlier criteria. If the new conception withstands critical scrutiny, problems that proved intractable in the earlier theories may be solved or softened, or at least better understood.


Fox defines the general concept of cohesion in terms of what a thing (in the wide sense that includes states of affairs) is. For a stone, a plant, or an animal to cohere is for the structural and functional properties that define it as a thing of its kind to obtain, to hang together. (69) Its structure, that is, its component elements and their configuration, enables its functions. 8 The exercise of functions maintains it in existence, gives it its resistance to stress and whatever capacity it may have of self-repair after injury or disease. The opposite of cohesion is discohesion. A thing (again in the wide sense) is discohesive to the extent that it lacks or loses discernible structure or function. Cohesion comes in several varieties. A thing is rigidly cohesive to the extent that its structural and functional relations are unvarying. 9 It is responsively cohesive insofar as its elements and relations stand in mutually modifying relations that preserve and enhance its characteristic mode of being or functioning. Thus a living creature is responsively cohesive to the extent that it is highly self-organizingly responsive. And this condition of highly responsive cohesiveness is as good an equivalent of flourishing as can be found, so far as I can see. The distinction between rigid and responsive cohesion is one of degree along a continuum. The less responsive the more rigid, and vice versa. 10

What of non-living things? The physico-chemical aspects of the universe, e.g., the Earth as a planetary geophysical system, are one and all dynamic in some degree at any given time, and are historically so in their formation, their susceptibility to change under stress, and their ultimate degeneration and destruction. The relations that bind together the physico-chemical elements in things (or stages of things) are also to some degree relations of responsiveness, whether they be one-way or mutual, local or regional, low-numbered or high-numbered, single-level or multilevel. 11 For instance, in the comparatively unvarying patterns among the molecules in a brick the cohesiveness is paradigmatically rigid. The delicately adjusted relations among the planets in the solar system is significantly more mutually responsive, though not so much so as the more complex interactions in plate tectonics and vulcanism on Earth, which in turn are exceeded by the mutually responsively cohesiveness of living things.12

A special category of non-living things is constituted by the domain of artifacts carrying cultural content. Not only do these stand in complex actual relations to the humans who create, use and sustain them. They also have metaphorical RC relations, according to Fox. Thus the elements of visual or sonic designs may interact dynamically or even intentionally with each other: they may (as it were) press against each other, balance each other, and convey attitudes or states of mind. (In my view metaphorical responsive cohesion is at bottom a matter of the relations of the designs to living things, specifically to human percipients. That is, it consists in.the capacity of the designs to engender ways of imaginatively experiencing them, and of our capacity to respond to them this way. The connection is obvious in the case of linguistic inscriptions but seemingly “natural” in the case of expressive designs, naturalistic representations, and the like. I have no reason to think Fox disagrees with this.) In this connection note that metaphorical RC occurs in non-artifacts as well. Objects in nature also have this capacity, however free of intention the case may be. Formal aesthetic values in nature are thereby provided for: beauties of form, color, texture and the like.

The next part of Fox's theory concerns contexts. Responsive cohesion attaches to single things (internal cohesion) and to things in contexts (contextual cohesion). Contextually responsive cohesion consists in the mutually responsive relations among the “elements and salient features” of the thing in question and the other players in the context: for instance the relation between a species and the environmental factors constituting an ecological niche, or more narrowly between predators and prey. Large contexts include whole realms: 13 the biophysical realm, the realm of “mindsharers” and what Fox calls the compound material realm exemplified by artifacts. Large contexts contain countless subcontexts. Contexts are bounded not just by properties and location, but by time as well. They extend in scope from the temporally local to the epochal to the geological and cosmic. Contexts are also interrelated by overlap or containment relations. Thus the full context picture is enormously complex.

Every living thing arises in the first instance within an ecological system within which it has complex RC relations. For F ox this formative context is vital to its being the thing it is. That context is part of the total planetary ecosphere within which every species has come to exist and been shaped by a long evolutionary process. Fox lays special stress on this: the planetary ecosystem as a whole is “an exquisite example of the relational quality of responsive cohesion.” (308) Its RC value is the resultant of the RC values of the myriad subsidiary ecosystems with all their current and historical relationships entering into it. Its being both the formative and the most inclusive ecosystem justifies according it supreme value, according to Fox. Thus preserving its integrity is proposed as an overriding consideration in all environmental decisions.

Another context of special environmental interest is what Fox calls our biophysical base context. This consists of all of the biosphere lying outside of the realm of mindsharers (and therefore also outside of the realm of artifacts). To mindsharers this base is properly of crucial importance, not least because on it depends the RC of human life.

The category of “mindsharers” figures essentially in the value differentiations in the RC system. Though uniquely exemplified by humans in our solar system it is not defined as human consciousness, but rather by qualities that only humans happen to have, based on recent research. Mindsharers communicate not only information to others but conceive of others having a point of view and an interior life similar to their own. They have the ability to imagine what another person's experience is like. The behavior of even the most plausible non-human mindsharers, chimps and bonobos, strongly suggests the absence of this capacity. In the wild they don't point out or hold up objects for others to see, don't bring others to locations to get them to see, don't teach others new behaviors as opposed to learning from observing another's behavior, etc. When human-acculturated they continue to exhibit surprising limitations. They follow only the movement of the head, not that of the eyes. They appear baffled by the failure of blindfolded caregivers to respond to their gestures. And they almost never use the bits of language they have been taught to share observations as opposed to obtaining some practical end. In short their behavior suggests a mental life consisting of recognizing behavioral patterns in others rather than sharing an inner life comparable to theirs. Also suggested is the absence of the capacity to reason about inherently unobservable features of the world (253), to form a narrative of their life (258f.) or to envisage their death, i.e., the cessation of their consciousness in death (261).

Such distinctions separate levels of RC-complexity and therefore values. They bear importantly on the duties we owe to other beings. It is not germane to my present purpose to lay out the moderately complex system Fox develops of the latter. When some part of it becomes relevant to an issue of application of the RC theory, that part will be retrieved.

On Fox's theory relationships are in general intrinsically valuable in proportion as they are highly responsively cohesive. 14 All viable natural organisms and systems may be responsively cohesive, both in their internal functioning and behaviorally so in their native context. But some are far more highly – more delicately, widely and multifariously responsive than are others. On this basis the biophysical realm possesses less complex RC on average than the mindsharer realm within it, with its fantastically complex neural systems which exceed even the complex responsiveness of those of the other living realms. This may make mindsharers ecologically dangerous, but that potential menace does not lessen their superior internal systemic natural beauty. (However, mindsharers can also be more diversely defective.)

By the same token the greater internal physico-chemical complexity of the Earth as opposed to Mercury, say, gives it greater responsive cohesion. This accords with our intuitive judgment that it is more worthy of aesthetic admiration .

As earlier mentioned, beyond internal RC is contextual RC. Fox argues that in general the latter trumps the former . in calculating the overall value of a thing. His model is aesthetic. A sweet chord out of place makes for a less good whole. Better to sacrifice the sweetness of the part than ruin the internal cohesiveness of the whole. Thus the chord has to be judged primarily on the basis of its effect on the larger context, not on its internal RC. This principle does not disregard internal RC but merely establishes a priority. Such priority enables us to answer objections based on what we might call responsive cohesiveness of ill-repute. A cult may be internally high in responsive cohesion, the members tightly bonded, their beliefs reinforcing one another, and their attitudes harmonious. But the external relations of the cult will be far from responsive to evidence regarding facts regarding nature and history. Contextually the cult will be in part rigidly cohesive, in thrall to a domineering ideology, and in part downright discohesive, its beliefs in hopeless conflict with massively supported knowledge from without. Hence such cases are dubious counterexamples to Fox's theory.

Yet such cases do bring home to us how complex the accounting of RC may be, spread as it is over many contexts standing in relations of subordination or superordination. Both internal and contextual RC must be assessed by the comparative RC of the constituent relations. The more faithful to the issues we aim at being, the more disconcerting the magnitude of the task becomes of applying the theory of RC to the environment.

Another early objection may be that mutually modifying responsiveness may be antagonistic rather than friendly and therefore doubtfully harmonious. Is an even battle of wits in which each party aims at the humiliation, hence discohesion, of the other an instance of systemic beauty? The quick answer, from Fox's point of view, is yes, this is, or more cautiously can be, an example of significant value, a beautifully even contest, like a brilliantly played chess match ending in a draw or the periodic expansion and contraction of prairie and forest at each other's expense. But, the skeptic may continue, is it more beautiful than a beautifully played match that ends in one contestant finally outplaying – or putting down – her rival? Now the comparison is at such a level of detail that one may indeed wonder whether Fox's general principle suffices. Such cases make clear how much further detail must be added to the bare bones presented so far. This may be granted, however, without summarily rejecting the outline so far given. After all, we must expect any viable theory of value, general or specific, to be rife with complications. Let us proceed in the only way we can, by considering applications and the refinements or revisions they force upon us. The applications of direct relevance to my present purpose are to environmental issues.


F ox claims it as a virtue of his theory that it provides credible answers to such environmental issues as the value of wild vs. domesticated nature, indigenous vs. introduced species, local diversity vs. monoculture, species biodiversity maintenance vs. biodiversity-reduction in pursuance of human interests, treatment of animals at different levels, ecosystem preservation vs. sacrifice for the built environment, and so forth. As I interpret his criterion, the solutions will favor the most systemically beautiful states of affairs. Let us consider two of the problems he mentions.

Domestication of plants and animals intrudes into the natural ecosystem in a way that predation or evolutionary change does not. It is creative in modifying animals and plants so that they support human needs, basic and advanced (i.e., cultural) better than wild species can do. Without domestication what we know as civilization would never have developed. 15 Domestication works by selecting for favored properties and by providing supportive niches, e.g. cultivated fields. In the case of plants, development of new varieties or species of cereals, for example, can leave the wild ancestors intact on unimproved ground and the result (short-term at least) is that biodiversity at the variety and species level is slightly enhanced – unless of course there are adverse effects on other species due to the plots given over to cultivation being substantially monocultural. 16 But as domestication and monoculture advance to support ever-growing civilized activities the native species are degraded and often go extinct. Therein lies the chief complaint of defenders of wild nature. And justly so, Fox says:

Ecologically informed judgments will be critical in deciding where to draw the line here, but one obvious form of feedback that tells us if we have gone too far is this: if indigenous species become threatened as a result of domestication practices, that is a sure sign that these practices are actively detracting from the responsive cohesion of our biophysical base context.” (318)

And he goes on to say, “there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, in numerous ways and in numerous places, we have already passed [that] point…”

I am sympathetic with this assessment. My question is whether a strict accounting of RC supports it. Suppose we have sufficient knowledge of the network of biotic relations sustained by the two types of vegetation, wild and domesticated, to make a fair assessment of the overall RC effect of the changes within the relevant realms. Suppose wild diversity has been noticeably degraded, overwhelmed by the advancing monoculture of a small number of domesticated varieties. This loss must be compared with the gain of RC in human culture resulting from the greater food supply, a gain that is fundamental to civilization – to specialization, to hierarchical organization, to literacy, to technology, to science and all the rest. Each side, the loss and the gain, is formidably complicated, especially since we must reckon with long-term consequences as well as immediate effects. Further, we must extend our survey to the entire biosphere, pursuant to the principle that the larger context to which we belong trumps our internal RC.

Our computation is complicated by the fact that the mindsharer realm is internally richer in the more advanced sorts of RC. We will need to have some way to estimate the RC value for widely different types, for nature and for culture, to put it simply. It is not immediately obvious that the gain in that realm does not compensate for the loss of biodiversity in the rest of our biophysical base context. 17 True, every lost species represents a formidably complex instance of RC. But so does a novel or a constitution or a hybrid plant or a computer program. The result is that a case has to be made for particular trade-offs. An impression of overall gain or loss will not suffice. Thus until we have tested the waters we will not know to what extent preservation or reclamation of wildness can be justified on RC principles, when matched with human gain. What we know is that the rapid disappearance of wild species risks losing more than we are gaining, hence it is urgent to bring it under control at least until we can reach a principled decision as to the relation between nature and culture on the best basis we can find.

Fox's answer to this invokes the priority of contextual RC over internal RC. He takes the mindsharer realm to be subordinate to the biophysical. But to what biophysical context exactly? There is the total global ecosystem. And we might willingly grant that if culture lowers the RC of that totality then culture should be trimmed back. The systemic beauty of the whole trumps the systemic beauty of the mindsharers' realm. But his remarks about loss of species appears to refer instead to our biophysical base, of which the mindsharers' realm is arguably not a part. Rather the two are arguably coordinate sections of the biophysical totality, notwithstanding the complex relationships subsisting between them. On that basis neither is subordinate to the other. The gain to the one at the cost of the other is not like the melody out of place in the symphony. That image fits only the relation between either of them and the total biosphere. If this is so then it is not correct to count a loss to our biospherical base as more momentous an RC detraction than a gain to the mindsharers is an RC gain. A nearer analogue is a gain in the dance at some cost to the music in a ballet. That trade-off does not necessarily violate the context-principle.

However, there are circumstances that an environmentalist can cite that in general support inclining toward according higher intrinsic value to preservation. Fair RC appraisal of the mindsharer realm must take into account the massive discohesion and rigid cohesion in the various departments of social life, the weekly atrocities, the daily starvation and disease, and the rampant injustice, emotional confusion, irrationality and triviality. These remind us of how flawed humans are individually and collectively. The systemic beauty of humankind as it might be were it to attain optimal RC is one thing. The RC rating of humankind as it actually is is another. The latter spectacle has not been without its influence on defenders of wildlife, and appropriately so. What ultimately counts is what is, and the fact is that the world of plants and animals presents an image that is closer to their potential than the image of the world of mindsharers does to theirs. Further, one way in which humans fall short is to accord far too little RC value to the environment. 18


A second issue broached by Fox concerns the “compound material realm,” architecture in particular. Given three buildings, all equally sound in construction, how should we weight three values: ecological compatibility, functionality for users, and “aesthetic” compatibility with the surrounding built environment? Schematically the situation is as follows.

Three buildings A, B, and C: all have high internal RC (are well built) but differ as follows in contextual RC:

Ecological RC Functional RC Site-RC

A High Low Low

B Low High Low

C Low Low High

Fox's answer is that the decision must be made on the strength of the relation of the three contexts to which the values relate. Compatibility with the built environment relates to the compound material realm, which is subordinate to the mindsharer realm, to which the functionality relates. Subordinate domains are inherently less weighty than superordinate ones. Therefore functionality trumps aesthetic compatibility with the architectural environment. Likewise the mindsharer realm is subordinate to the biophysical realm. Hence it must yield to the interests of the biophysical. Hence if there is forced choice between two buildings, one of which is ecologically benign and the other is ecologically bad, then the choice, Fox says, must always go the former even if the loser suits human purposes much better.

To my mind this is not plausible, at least as it stands. For again the question comes down to the comparative RC values. If the ecological badness is slight and the human functionality large, the overall contribution to the total biosphere (which, recall, includes the mindsharer realm) may be positive. The primacy of contextual RC will not stand against this. Of course, as Fox goes on to say, there may be no good reason for making the building ecologically bad. We should endeavor to obtain both values, to the extent possible. Only if circumstances conspire to make the choice forced for the builders will a bad ecological building be justified. This suggests an easy addition to Fox's principles, namely, strive for the maximum RC possible in each realm, not just for a gain.

In this case as in the preceding one, I claim that the issue is properly regarded as most fundamentally an aesthetic one, one that turns on the question of. which solution presents us with superior systemic beauty overall.


If I am right, to test Fox's theory we must ascertain the RC of things in far more detail than has ever been done. This requires absorbing such scientific knowledge as we have and as we may obtain as time proceeds. Equally required is testing the limits of our aesthetic intuitions of what science tells us about nature in the broadest sense, including human culture. I grant that this is an unfamiliar approach. We have little practice in appreciating systemic beauty. Unfamiliarity fuels skepticism about the very possibility of an aesthetic critique of systems. Many would write the project off as a confusion of the aesthetic with the intellectual. It is therefore relevant to reflect on the reasons why appreciation of systemic beauty is so hard a sell to those who are most versed in aesthetic appreciation of more familiar species of beauty.

A first impediment to natural order appreciation is simply ignorance. The wing of a dragonfly is a bio-mechanical marvel, with its veins and flexions at critical points that shape the airfoil in an aerodynamically effective way. Thereby a single muscle can do the equivalent of what is done by the far more complex musculature and bone structure used by a bird. Only if I know the system fairly intimately can I appreciate its systemic beauty. When I do grasp it, I cannot help but admire it and stand amazed at the fact that it has developed without intelligent design. 19

Closely related to the above is ignorance of how else the dragonfly's wing might have been designed: how from a similar evolutionary starting point such a creature's wing might have been made better or worse than the actual thing. We are far from the knowledge needed to compete with nature, especially in the ‘how to' aspect. Only occasionally do we obtain tips, and these come from nature itself, as when the finches on Daphne Major evolve broader beaks to crack a wider variety of seeds and therefore survive with their breeding potential undiminished. (Weiner 1994) Yet sometime in the future scientists may complete their apprenticeship and be able to enlighten us. 20 That is something anyone interested in systemic beauty appreciation should welcome.

A third impediment arises when the complexity of RC in two species or ecosystems makes it difficult to arrive at a well-considered comparative appraisal. Social ant colonies are formidably rich in RC. So are lizards that disguise themselves by elaborate coloration changes. With each so complex, how can we gather enough of the complexity into a sufficiently unified “view” or conception to generate reliable intuitions of comparative value?

A fourth impediment is the difficulty in imagining the processes that embody the systemic beauty of an organism, especially in doing so in relevant detail. The precision of coordination as gene switches turn on and off in forming a creature defies imagining. We lose the drama. This is related to the sensory surface problem, and to the first impediment, namely ignorance of aesthetically relevant details.

Some of the foregoing citations are arguably unfair, since comparable aesthetic difficulties arise in well-cultivated aesthetic domains. Complex things of any kind are hard to appraise aesthetically overall. Our appreciation remains at a general level because we are simply not capable of organizing the data sufficiently to make finer distinctions. This certainly holds true for immersion experiences of nature, and equally for panoramic experiences. It applies also to ensembles of art works or complex works such as films.

A more basic source of disquiet among traditional aestheticians is the bias in favor of a sensory surface conception of aesthetic experience. This has been well analyzed and rebutted by Glenn Parsons (2006b), who proposes an extended notion of quasi-observation in which theoretical knowledge may figure, given both training and habituation in the relevant theories. I am happy to accept this expansion of the notion of aesthetic appreciation. But even someone who thinks the scope of aesthetic experience should be thus extended may doubt that it will accommodate the full range of RC, environmental or other. Can we aesthetically appreciate the intricate pattern of RC in the digestive system or the skeletal and muscular system as the organism functions in ordinary ways? What would aesthetic enjoyment of such things be like? The very generality of the concept of RC creates problems of aesthetic appreciation. Prima facie it may well seem that we must stretch our aesthetic powers beyond their reach in order to put Fox's criterion into action. It is not simply that the forms of RC just mentioned are so commonplace, for we are apt to experience the same aesthetic incapacity for forms that by RC standards are exceptional. Is this sufficiently explained by any of the preceding impediments?

Suppose we were fully cognizant of the actual RC relations in the digestive system, from the initial crushing of food by the teeth, softening by thin saliva and forming into a glutinous bolus by mucous, and preliminary digestion by enzymes, all in preparation for swallowing, to the grinding and further digestion of food by a cocktail of enzymes, acid, and protein in the stomach, to the chemical breakdown of molecules by enzymes, bile and pancreatic juices in the small intestine, the frenzy of E. Coli in the large intestine, absorption through tissues, and more. Suppose also that we could envisage these, and all the rest of the hugely complicated total process, to the extent that they are envisageable. Could this combination of knowledge and imagination be a source of aesthetic enjoyment? Could we relish the staged interactions, cheer the entrance and action of chemical agents, the heaving of peristalsis, the absorption of nutrients, their transportation through the various organs to their proper destination, and the eventual restoration of the energies of the organisms, as it sighs with repletion?

Perhaps the task seems monumental. Perhaps it is monumental. Perhaps it is more than we can ask of ourselves, if we would flourish aesthetically. But put the question in terms of aesthetic theory and the answer is otherwise. To describe the process in full is to create a narrative that is not without aesthetic properties. A complex, precisely staged process takes place, the stages of which are finely coordinated, the substances exactly suited to the task, the tissues exactly formed for their function, the colony of auxiliary organisms cooperating to the full. And the resulting replenishment affects the whole system, restoring well-being. To envisage this is to envisage a complex harmony. Surely all this can be appreciated. The only problem is that one cannot see it from the outside, the body not having acquired that transparency for which St. Augustine yearned and forecast for our heavenly bodies. No, our imaginations must transform knowledge into such images as it can without direct sensory prompts. We are never able to enter the theatre itself. We are confined to the lobby.

Except of course when it is our own digestion. Then we can have limited sensory access to the process through our internal feeling.

Our reluctance to cultivate the aesthetics of digestion may be based on the understandable desire to specialize in other, more rewarding aesthetic domains. Clearly we cannot spread ourselves over more than a tiny fraction of the aesthetic universe without losing our center, which is to say, our cohesion. On the whole, I favor this explanation of our self-imposed restraint, which is entirely consistent with Fox's principles. What is wrong is the outright denial of possibility, as if the beauty wasn't there to be appreciated.


In the foregoing I have spoken of RC without raising the question of whether it is, after all, a well-defined relation. Let me make it clear that I do not feel entitled to assert that it is so. Perhaps it can be made so, but no case has yet been made for that outcome. A chief question concerns the degree and kind of mutuality that it implies. Fox gives us a graduated contrast of responsive and rigid cohesion, the latter tending toward discohesion. And he speaks of cohesion that is highly or moderately responsive. That, and the numerous examples cited, is what he gives us. The relation of mutual to one-way responsive cohesiveness needs to be clarified. Many of our responses to the environment are altogether or mostly one-way. We breathe in oxygen supplied by the atmosphere. The atmosphere's response to that individual breath is negligible, to say the least. And yet that one-way responsiveness is crucial to our cohesion. Is that relation less constructive for being one-way? Much responsiveness takes the form of sequential one-way responses. What one animal learns to do is imitated by others in turn. Again this responsiveness is one-way rather than mutual. Are these interactions less constructively ordered than mutual ones? One-way responsiveness has the great virtue of providing stability. That the earth does not move as the butterfly stamps its foot is a mercy to us all. That the atmosphere was once capacious enough and well enough furnished with plants to absorb the carbon dioxide exhaled by animals with plenty of oxygen to spare is a good thing, a beauty of the natural system. Too much mutual responsiveness and life is a torment of anxiety.

Then there are questions about the relation of RC to other aesthetic relations, such as uniformity and variety, or as I prefer, multiplicity of well-coordinated uniformities. Possibly Fox will explicate them all in terms of RC. But possibly RC will be reducible to a form of uniformity and variety or will stand beside it and other aesthetically positive relations.

In short myriad problems await us in developing a coherent aesthetics of natural order. Fox has focused attention valuably on responsive cohesion. It remains to be seen how central that value-determining relation will be to systemic natural beauty.  


1. Naturally there are many objections tha t will be brought against so sweeping a theory as Fox's. Some will concern its application to environmental matters. For example, it may be objected that many life forms , though exemplifying responsive cohesion, are difficult to accept as aesthetically positive. Viruses and bacteria that flourish at the expense of the flourishing of the host organism are among the commonly disparaged examples. Environmental order aesthetics responds (rightly, in my view) that the flourishing of these species is aesthetically positive, judged internally, as Fox would say. This does not imply that the decline or death of their prey is aesthetically positive. Rather the judgment as to the overall value of these organisms in a given context must be based on the goodness of functioning of the context as a whole. Fox's proposal is that the latter is best assessed in terms of the overall responsive cohesion possessed by the context. In my view this is a reasonable hypothesis, even though it is far from demonstrably true and it is far from clear what its exact implications are. Fox's elaborations suggest that we would need to establish the internal RC values of the different organisms. Sentient beings and especially mindsharers score much higher than microorganisms and in virtue of this are presumed to contribute more to the RC of the largest context s in which they exist . But these higher beings cannot exist without beneficial microorganisms and it may be that beneficial ones cannot exist in a natural system without the injurious ones also occurring. It seems likely that no genetic process that operates on purely natural principles could avoid that. This reflection plausibly supports the view that all life forms have substantial positive value, which accords with the view of the RC theory. But it also is consistent with the view that the distribution of predatory (as opposed to detritivorous) microorganisms is best when as thin as possible consistent with the health of the higher species (in Fox's terms, the RC-richer species). Human control, perhaps even selective eradication, of predatory microorganisms is thus justifiable may achieve higher overall RC value . The key question s are , where does the point of diminishing RC returns fall in such trade-offs and have we any reasonable prospect of reliably locating it.

2. Fox argues for the superiority of his theory's application to environmental matters over rights-based theories, i.e., theories that ascribe rights to species at large, and in some cases to geophysical features such as streams and forests. I agree that such extensions of the concept of rights are illegitimate. But I dissent from Fox's lumping needs in the same dustbin. Living things need various conditions to flourish, and thus have needs, which must be distinguished from desires or subjective satisfactions. The basis of the ethical credit accruing to an agent for managing her actions so as to minimize harm to living things is the intrinsic – ultimately aesthetic – value of th os e things (RC value on Fox's theory). Inanimate things do not have needs, however much they may serve our the needs of organisms . The well diversified geophysical character of the Earth's surface is aesthetically superior to that of any other planetary body in our solar system, but i t hat is not because the Earth flourishes more amply geophysically . It does not flourish at all. But even apart from it providing a site where life can flourish, it is more beautifully diversified than the other planets. This aesthetic value (metaphorical RC, on Fox's theory) overlaps with, but is not identical to, its capacity to provide us with more beautiful views than the other planets.

3. The controversy that rages over the proper appreciation of nature strikes me as ill-directed on all sides. There is no impropriety in appreciating natural things any way one can, whether as scenes or enveloping ambiences or as scientifically fascinating systems or as sites of folk legends or in any other way. Selection merely narrows the object of appreciation ( e.g., folk fiction s merely embed selected aspects of nature in a fictional world ) . Selection does not elevate one mode of appreciation , or one selection of objects, over another. The great advantage of selective appreciation is that it promotes discrimination because the appreciators can develop a better grasp of the relevant variables. Lovers of Arabian s or whipp e ts make finer and better based value- discriminations than are possible in the field of horses or dogs in general. Thus the judgments of the best in the show are always, necessarily, largely gratuitous. When it comes to really large classes, say mammals or insects, where on earth would one begin – and how on earth would one end , even if one invoked only attractive structure and behavior ? The essential point s to keep in mind are (1) every natural system is aesthetically assessable in principle in respect of some or all of its properties and relations in general or in limited contexts , including its appearances ; (2) as the complexity of factors falling within aesthetic appraisal grows, our capacity for fine-grained discriminations of value rapi d ly diminishes and our justified evaluations become impressionistic – quite beautiful, so-so, unimpressive ; (3) we are under no obligation to develop more of a repertoire of justified appreciation than the demands and opportunities of life allow but should give due acknowledge ment of the aesthetic subtlety and reliability of those who de monstrate their command of a given repertoire , however broad or narrow, conventional or idiosyncratic it may be ; and (4) anyone who claims to be appreciating nature as it is in all its aspects, is deluded.

4. A challenge to unlimited order aesthetics is posed by arguments to the effect that “our aesthetic experience begins and ends with the sensuous surfaces. ” (Saito) If true, this would exclude aesthetic experience of the purely intellectual sort, as in mathematics , scientific theor y, and chess. To me the burden of proof falls on proponents of the sensuous surface conception . So far, I know of no successful attempt to carry this burden. As long as there is prima facie aesthetic appreciation of the purely intellectual sort, th e advantage lies with the wider conception that counts clear and distinct conceptual intuit ion as a mode of aesthetic experience . I suggest that the sensuous surface view is wrongly based on confusion of cogniti on with cognitive pleasure. Sheer cognition, including knowing that one knows, is not plausibly taken as necessarily aesthetic. But pleasure taken in clear and distinct conceptual intuition is.

5. An example of a n aesthetically eminent system might be a limited set of interrelated species in an environment that favors their sustainable flourishing. This implies a distinction of an eminent state of flourishing (think of Aldo Leopold's description of wildlife in the delta of the Colorado River in A Sand Counry Almanac, 137-158) and one of strong resistance to degradation. Thus i f the species are highly interdependent the flourishing may be fragile , since the environment is potentially subject to climatic or geological conditions adverse to th e survival of that flourishing . The system will lack resistance or resilience. So the ideal might be a tight inter action of occasion, so to speak, but with a looser inter dependency relation , more redundancy and hence more versatility. But the practical ideal will be restricted to what the relevant genetic system s are capable of producing.

6. Carlson's argument for p ositive (nature) aesthetics rests on the aesthetic value found in understanding nature in terms of scientific categories which are themselves established in part by aesthetic criteria. (Carlson, 1984, 2000 Ch.6) One difficulty with this is that scientific categories apply as well to degraded ecosystems as to robust ones, to human ly modified as well as pristine ones. Order at this level seems grossly inadequate to account for the superabundant beauty that environmental aestheticians ascribe to nature. Also it is hard to believe that any positive order aesthetic ian responds within s o narrow a range of variation as the theory implicitly recommends, or that s o leveled a response is a reasonable aspiration in regard to s o remarkable an object.

7. Glenn Parsons (2006b) revises Carlson's positive aesthetics in an ingenious way in order to dispose of the difficulty of explaining why species that seem bizarre and therefore ugly, such as the Venus fly-trap, should rather be viewed as aesthetically positive. However, this defensive move has no effect in providing positive aesthetics with a way of discriminating routine from eminent beauties. We are still left with an uncomfortably low ceiling of aesthetic goodness. In effect, every species that is inoffensive when viewed from an optimizing point of view (optimally well-informed and positively intentioned) is as aesthetically as good as any other. The fact that the Venus fly-trap is unremarkable among meat-eating plants may free it from one accusation, but it hardly satisfies the need for a well-graduated ranking of the plant among meat-eating plants or plants in general.

8. A basic question arises about the scope of positive aesthetics: why is only wild nature deemed aesthetically positive? Domesticated nature would appear to be as plausibly so, and on similar grounds, namely that it has emerged by dint of testing and refinement – or, to put it otherwise, in response to environmental conditions, in this case those resulting from human intervention. Granted, it has endured only for a geologically brief period, but that is true for some organisms in wild nature, and there is no reason to believe that none of it will endure indefinitely. Such questions underscore how essential it is to pin down the general qualities on which systemic beauty supervenes. In this context RC is certainly a live candidate. I take it to be a virtue of Fox's theory that it implies a deep connection between the beauty of wild nature and that of other things.

9. The myriad depravities and other defects in human society should be seen in context. First, these defects stem from the vastly greater desires and needs of humans. Other animals live within their means more easily (with less stress) because of the comparative paucity of their conceptions and therefore of their desires and needs, not because they are more virtuous. Evolution produced a startling innovation when homo sapiens emerged, one for which the rest of nature was seriously unprepared. Second, the history of humanity to date is a blink of an eye in terms of evolutionary process relating to the functions and dysfunctions of humanity. We may destroy ourselves along with a lot of nature. But we may also work out solutions given tens of thousands of years. Our descendants may be sobered up by mega-calamities and the attrition of endless, smaller stresses. The capacity of humans to deploy their capabilities in harmonious yet stimulating ways that are intraspecifically and interspecifically consistent may be greatly improved. Hence there is reason not to fall into rigid despair. There is also benefit to be gained from working out coherent scenarios of high systemic harmony within the biosphere, to provide an in-principle-achievable goal to inspire and console us in the terrible times of transition.


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1. As in Yuriko Saito1998. In Carlson and Berleant 2004, 149.

2. A classic acknowledgement of the importance of order appreciation of nature is found in Aldo Leopold's A Sand CountryAlmanac (1948) where the author speaks of “the esthetic harvest it [nature] is capable , under science , of contributing to culture.” (viii) The emphasis is mine.

3. For a brief review of such reasons have been put forward, see endnote 4.

4. The account of the discoveries in “evo devo” over the past two decades in Sean Carroll (2005, 2006) conveys a lucid impression of this.

5. For a brief comment on an important modification of Carlson's position by Glenn Parsons (2006b) see endnote 7.

6. Hume's critique of natural theology does not carry over into a secular assessment of the aesthetic value of the natural order because all the corrections he conjures up presuppose the magic al intervention of the deity. None ar e improvements in the system of natural causes. Therein lies the great challenge to environmental order ae s thetics .

7. Fox is somewhat shy about the term “intrinsic” for fear of its association with intuitionism and Moorean ontology. Yet his description of responsive cohesion as “the deepest, most general source of value that exists ” seems to imply intrinsicness. In any case I use the term without partisan metaphysical associations. For me it simply refers to value that is independent of utility (independent, not incompatible) and of human response except under strongly optimizing conditions .

8. I.e., the structure and the natural laws combined determine its functional capabilities.

9. Fox distinguishes four types of rigid cohesion: minimal mutual responsiveness, as in the molecules in a brick; forced fixation from within, as when one member of a group dominates the others; forced fixation from without, as when a hackneyed convention constrains a story; and narrow waveband fixation, as where a person's conversation is obsessively limited to a single theme.

10. Thus for Fox monoculture agriculture is rigidly cohesive, at least in comparison with wild nature, although it is obviously responsive to a significant degree to its biophysical context. Many questions arise in classifying patterns of response. For instance, giraffes browse on acacia trees, which apparently respond by a chemically altered emission of sap which attracts ants that defend the tree against beetle borers. If the tree is fenced off from the giraffe, the sap's attractiveness diminishes, the ants grow phlegmatic and the borers cause significant injury or death to the tree. This pattern involves mutual responsiveness but its regularity or predictability may consign it to rigid responsiveness. On that basis true responsive cohesion would have to be creative. Intricacy wouldn't suffice.

11. A difference of level is suggested by Fox's example of a conversation “in which there is a deep, significant, meaningful, or genuine form of answering between the elements of salient features that make up the conversation” (75)

12. One wonders whether Fox would classify stars and gaseous planets as responsively or rigidly cohesive systems of elements and salient features.


13. Realms contain elements (organic or inorganic) and relations of functional dependence. The widening scope of realms in Fox's account is one of functional dependence, not of simple class membership. Physically mindsharers are players in the geophysical realm, but the geophysical system does not depend for its existence upon them playing that role or existing at all -- only for the existence of certain of its properties. Likewise mindsharers are organisms but there could be an organic system that contained no mindsharers. The realm of domesticated animals and plants also depends (in part) upon mindsharers for its existence and continuing state of "civility" or "companionability." The realm of (mindsharer) artifacts tangible or intellectual likewise depends for its existence on mindsharers.

14. It should be obvious that while Fox accepts the “deep ecology” principle that all natural systems have some value. His theory accepts the eight points , elaborated in the six comments, and indeed virtually everything proposed by Arne Naess 1986. But he dissents from the strongly leveling mysticism typical of this movement..

15. I rely on Jared Diamond's account in Guns, Germs and Steel on this matter.

16. Reduction of wild populations perhaps has little RC effect if the species remains strongly viable, since plants, unlike social creatures, do not depend so heavily on large populations to flourish or suffer from sympathy for populations lost in other regions.

17. Defined as it is, our biospherical base context includes domestic species as well as wild ones, since we depend on both for sustenance. We can therefore put aside descriptions of domesticated nature as no longer natural. In some sense of course it is. Some of it would not survive without human care. Yet for present purposes it must count as part of our base – for we have made it so. Equally when we sum up the prevailing biodiversity we must include domesticated species as well as wild ones. (See the diagram at the end of the paper)

18. See endnote 9 for additional reflections on this topic.

19. Alexander 2002, 32-34, 98-103 is a useful reference for this subject. A more detailed account of the truly astonishing subtlety and complexity of insect wing action may be found in Grimaldi and Engel 2005, 156-7.

20. Conspicuous among scientific critics of natural evolution is George C. Williams 1997. He cautions that “We have to attend not only to the body's impressive cleverness but also to the stupidities that arise from its being the product of natural selection rather than any rational planning.” (133) But he confines himself to saying what structures might have been better. He does not say how nature might have brought those improvements about.