“Ecological thinking reveals the self ennobled and extended rather than threatened, as part of the landscape and the ecosystem. …. We must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”
-Ecology and Man: A Viewpoint
Paul Shepard (1925-1996) is often called the first ecologist; certainly, he is one of the first ecologists to include thinking of humans within ecosystems and as evolved into our distinctive “humanness” because of our nonhuman surround. A brilliant and unconventional thinker, exceptional writer, and interdisciplinary decades before the term began to be used, his work more than any one else’s explores the evolutionary rootedness of human being – homo sapiens sapiens – within the ecology of the Earth. He has articulated at length the psychological significance of the hunter-gatherer way of life in setting the norm for what is “mental health” and “adult development”. He has also inquired at length into the importance of human embodiment within an ecosystem – above all, in relation to other animals – within that evolutionary history as crucial for the emergence of human cognition and language.
Shepard has a beautiful conception of the ecosystem into which a person is born as a second womb. At birth we leave our inherence within the mother’s womb and enter, not abstract space or undefined openendedness, but a structured place inhabited by numerous others, the majority nonhuman – earth organized into a terrain with sky and water, plants and animals – that in its totality, womblike, “contains” us. Our drastic immaturity, long slow development, and neotenous features are all key evolutionary pieces that will combine within the ecosystem-as-womb to act as the foundation for a potentially, fully mature adult. Human intelligence builds on and continues the extant intelligence already present within the ecosystems to which we belong.
Shepard is particularly insightful on the constitutive importance of our learning and growing in the wild, as one predator among many, in opposition to the “civilization-based”, i.e., domesticated, premise of thinking ever since agriculture. The intelligence and sensitivity inherent in hunting as key to our reflective consciousness; the powerful importance of learning the natural categories of the great diversity of animal and plant species as preface to our symbolizing cognition; the wisdom in traditional rites of passage to assist the adolescent in overcoming the challenges and trials of that stage in order to feel his/her belonging to the greater world and mature into that belonging; all of this and more are rich veins of insight Shepard mines throughout his books. If he is correct in his assessment, then a major challenge he issues is that we are unable to come to the full maturity of human being within agricultural (and certainly, industrial) civilization, but rather as adults we remain caught within particular adolescent immaturities that cannot resolve without the proper immersion into wildness amongst our nonhuman, wild others.
Some examples of books: The tender carnivore and the sacred game (1973); Nature and madness (1982); The others: how animals made us human (1996); Coming home to the Pleistocene (1998).
A fuller bibliography and more detail can be found at Paul Shepard website