The Rhizomatics of Domination: From Darwin to Biotechnology

Michael Mikulak

[1] In a time where global warming, pantoxicity, pesticide pollution, resource scarcity, and a whole host of environmental problems regularly appear in news headlines, the perennial question about what the relationship between humans and nature is and should be, is more pressing than ever. While it may seem trite to focus on questions of narrative, representation, agency, and subjectivity in the face of more "pressing" material concerns, the environmental crisis is more than a problem for scientists; it is a problem of narrative, ontology, and epistemology. It is as much a failure of imagination as it is a technological problem, arising from maladapted social and political ecologies that fail to establish healthy and sustainable networks of kinship imaginaries [1] that are capable of addressing the competing needs and desires of multiple actors within the biocultural networks humanity always inhabits. Kinship imaginaries are the foundation of how we relate to others, and thus are the ground upon which (bio)politics are based. They are the basis of how we imagine ourselves to be connected to the world around us, and the myriad organisms that populate this increasingly shrinking and sullied world. How we imagine ourselves in relation to nature determines, to a large extent, the power dynamics of that relationship, whether it is colonial, ownership-based, or convivial and respectful. Whether the Christian narrative of Genesis that encourages Man to "increase, multiply and subdue the earth" (c.f. Lynn White Jr., Merchant), or Gary Snyder's blend of Eastern mysticism and Aboriginal myth which sees the world in terms of an etiquette of freedom, kinship imaginaries are the foundation of our relationship with each other and the world around us, and thus must be interrogated carefully if we are to address the source of the environmental crisis. They are the discourses, emotional ties, art and beliefs we have about our place in the world and provide the substrata and intellectual justification for our actions in the world. Although not an exhaustive sampling, this paper is about two competing kinship systems, the arboreal and the rhizomatic, and the ways in which they structure and are structured by political economy, scientific knowledge, and power. The environmental crisis is a complicated interaction of all these things, and my choice to focus on kinship imaginaries derives from the belief that any solutions to the environmental crisis must also occur on the level of narrative if they are to be more than a passing fad. Neil Evernden suggests that "we are not in an environmental crisis, but are the environmental crisis," in the sense that our way of knowing and being in the world is the problem (Evernden 134). As such, to address kinship imaginaries, is to approach the problem from the understanding that we must first change the way we think about nature and culture if we are to solve the problem. There are many different kinship imaginaries circulating, but I choose to focus on rhizomatics and arboreal systems for the sake of brevity, and also because of the potency of certain discourse emerging out of the biotechnological debate, and their implications for transforming the way we understand nature and culture to be related.

[2] And so this is a paper about bioscientific origin stories and the vectors of biopower that align themselves along these convoluted narrative transversals. More specifically, this is a paper about trees, roots and rhizomes, and how origins, subjectivity, kinship, unity and diversity, and the relationship between humans and nature are configured, refigured, shaped, and shattered by the competing, although not antithetical discourses of rhizomatics and arborescence. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Darwin, Haraway, Heimlreich, and a range of ecocriticism, I will interrogate how the radically open concept of subjectivity in flux characteristic of ecological models of rhizomatic kinship, transforms the political vectors of the various kinship imaginaries that tie us together. Because the biopolitical nexus of life and politics always draws on discourses of naturecultures in order to find more efficient modes of domination, we must carefully attend to kinship imaginaries that on the surface may seem to promise connection, but which open the door to perhaps more insidious modes of domination. This is especially the case with environmentalist discourses of ecology, which often valorize an open concept of complete rhizomatic interpenetration and connectivity, without considering how vectors of category transformation may infect the body politic with yet undreamt of viruses of biopower. What I call the rhizomatics of domination are the shifting configurations of (bio)power that capitalize on ecological understandings of relationality and kinship. This is not to say that Deleuze and Guattari, and other rhizomatic theorists, blindly celebrate the rhizome, but rather, that rhizomatics is being shaped by other rather arborescent discourses, namely the bioscientific narratives of biotechnology and capitalism, and those of solving world hunger and curing disease through genetic engineering. In much as the same way that Darwin's notions of evolution were transformed into racist justifications for eugenics, the rhizome is being transformed by competing discourses, and it is vital that we understand how this is proceeding.

[3] In terms of ecology, Donald Worster declares Darwin the "single most important figure in the history of ecology over the past two or three centuries" (114), and as such, it is important to interrogate Darwin's contributions to rhizomatics, and the way he has been taken up. Darwin(ism) has profoundly shaped contemporary kinship imaginaries, both positively and negatively, and by examining the profound struggles and tensions Darwin faced in articulating a non-anthropocentric web of life, I hope to cast some light on current problems we face today as biotechnology, and the intensely capitalist discourses around it, rewrite both life itself, and the way we imagine our connections to the world.

Roots and Rhizomes

[4] Rhizomatic theorists like Deleuze and Guattari and Stephan Helmreich tend to dichotomize the rhizome in relation to a (Darwinian) genealogical tree. For example, Helmreich argues that "at least since Charles Darwin, the family tree has been an algorithm for thinking about evolutionary genealogy, origins, and identity" (340). Such genealogical classifications, he claims, are "derived from Victorian social practices of family record keeping. Reading such kinship customs onto the organic world, Darwin effectively naturalized and universalized them, suggesting through a now commonplace epistemological reversal that such practices were themselves emanations of natural logic organizing all relatedness" (340). In rejecting these practices, Deleuze and Guattari declare that they are sick of trees because in the West, "arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification" (Deleuze 16). They declare that we must "make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don't sow, grow offshoots" (Deleuze 24)! The arboreal is associated with linearity, hierarchy, origins, racism, rigidity, and carnophallogocentrism, while the rhizome embodies flexibility, openness, movement, and potentiality. On the one hand we have a kinship system that is vertical, appealing to origins, stages, the scala naturae (in which humans rule over dumb beasts), and on the other hand, a system that seems to be open, thrives on diversity and change, and celebrates plurality.

[5] While I agree that the rhizome as a model is potentially very libratory and politically flexible, the ludic tone of valorization that often surrounds the rhizome tends to replicate the very binaries and dualistic thinking it attempts to escape by privileging an equally abstracted notion of multiplicity, lines of flight, rupture, and schizoanalysis that are potentially even more amenable to shifting configurations of biopower within the age of biotechnology. Rhizomatics seems to be the theoretical soup de jour, and in the same way that arborescence has been rigorously overcoded and dominated by certain bioscientific discourses of purity, miscegenation, and progress, the rhizome is equally vulnerable to such manipulations in the age of biotechnology. My paper argues that the celebration of rhizomes must be amended with careful attention to what I call the rhizomatics of domination. Echoing Haraway's notion of the "informatics of domination" [2] (Manifesto 161), the point of this paper will be to reach back into Darwin in order to show how even what we consider pure models of arborescent descent, are in fact much more rhizomatic and complicated in their configuration of origins. By looking at the ways in which Darwinism was transformed by the arboreal logic of the time (social Darwinism, eugenics, degeneracy, anti-immigration), and tracing the lines of flight from his theories to the bioscientific origin stories assembled by political opportunists, we can extrapolate and begin to see how the rhizomatics of domination is effecting the landscape of late capital. With discourse of climate change, eco-apocalypse, and the recent celebration of global warming as a boon for capitalism, the struggle over kinship imaginaries will shape the terrain of the future by fundamentally setting the tone for how we deal with the environmental crisis. The way we perceive environmental damage dictates how we will react to it, who we blame, and the actions we take.

[6] Discourse shapes the way we understand our relationship to global pollution and the actions we can take to address it, and kinship imaginaries are the most basic ideas we have about how we relate to the world. It is thus my contention that the reception and use of Darwinism must stand as an example for us when we are theorizing the political potential of rhizomatic or ecological thinking, especially in the context of powerful new technologies of genetic engineering that are rewriting the social and biological fabric of the tree of life along increasingly privatized lines of rhizomatic flight. In the same way that Darwinism was (mis)construed as a bioscientific discourse of legitimation for political philosophies that fly in the face of its author's intentions, rhizomatics must attend to the fascistic potential of recoding bios within the current biopolitical terrain.


[7] The purpose of most environmentalist discourse is to account for the material, epistemological, spiritual, political, and economic conditions that have resulted in the current environmental crisis. The discourse is thus inherently elegiac, mourning for a lost nature, state of union, innocence, or perhaps simply a connection to a world we are increasingly alienated from. Many ecocritics and environmentalists locate environmental degradation in the separation of nature and culture—in other words, a failure of kinship imaginaries to knit together human goals and desires with those of the biosphere. For example, many critics have pointed the finger at Western rationalism and scientific objectivism for its role in objectifying Nature in a manner that denies it agency and voice and transforms it into a mere resource for human exploitation (c.f. Manes, Evernden). The ostensible purpose of environmental discourse is thus deconstructive in the first instance, but ultimately constructive, with hope coming from the desire to reconstitute society within a healthy and sustainable relationship to nature. The environmental crisis is thus a crisis of narrative as much as it is a crisis of technology, economy, and politics. But what is it that we are saving? What do we mourn? If Nature is dead, as Bill McKibben has stated, then what does it mean to be post-natural? How do we weave a multiplicity or assemblage with(in) Nature without engaging in the same kind of fall and recovery narrative that Carolyn Merchant identifies as essentially colonialist in "Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative"? Is Nature, thus, a useless category for creating an ecological, biocentric ethic, because the term already frames humans and nature along a binary of self and other. Is it an arboreal narrative of false origins and hierarchies? What purpose does the category serve? Have we ever been in Nature in the purest sense of the word? If we accept what Donna Haraway says about our biotechnologically saturated world of technoscience, that we live "in a world where the artificatual and the natural have imploded, Nature itself, both ideologically and materially, has been patently reconstructed" (Vampires 350), then is the source of environmentally destructive ideology the arboreal separation of nature and culture, or a rhizomatic lack of separation? In other words, do we perhaps need to insist on a more stringent separation that would thus isolate the goals of non-human nature from our own and allow us to account for it in our enumerations?

Darwin's Rhizomatic Tree of Life

What we observe is not Nature itself, but Nature exposed to our method of questioning.
(The Heisenberg Principle, qtd. in Capra 336).

[8] Like anyone trying to theorize the link between nature and culture, Darwin was faced with the problem of producing "objective knowledge" while being embedded within the very system he was observing. Gillian Boer addresses precisely this problem when she analyzes the disjuncture between language and content within Darwin's project, which she identifies as the decentering of humanity in the kinship chain of Nature, an effort that resonates well with ecocriticism's attempt to challenge anthropocentrism and move towards a sustainable, biocentric worldview. Donald Worster agrees, stating that "the figure of Darwin must remain the most imposing and persuasive force behind the biocentric movement" (187).

[9] However, if language is inherently anthropocentric, and we are linguistic creatures, how can we ever hope to understand a world outside of ourselves and respect the goals of non-human nature? Should we perhaps be seeking a stronger distinction between humans and the world, rather than collapsing the two? Or is this perceived separation simply a linguistic artifact? How can we speak of/within Nature if language predisposes us towards all sorts of humanistic biases? Does this even matter? Gillian Beer asks: "If the material world is not anthropocentric but language is so, the mind cannot be held to truly encompass and analyze the properties of the world that lie about it" (Beer 45). Darwin seems very aware of this, frequently bringing attention to the linguistic limitation of his own theories. In The Origin of Species, he states that "I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphoric sense, including dependence of one being on another" (62). Donna Haraway argues that "biology is also not a culture-free universal discourse, for all that it has considerable cultural, economic, and technical power to establish what will count as nature throughout the planet Earth" (Vampires 323). Darwin seems painfully aware of this, and perhaps for this reason, avoids mentioning humanity in the Origin of Species. However, precisely because Darwin is trying to explain something that exceeds the anthropocentric focus of language, the discourse of evolution can easily be manipulated to serve various political ends.

[10] Moreover, because the act of description and observation necessarily results in the transformation of the thing being observed, any theory of nature that does not take into account its production as a human discourse is dangerous and hugely problematic. Thus, even if one is seeking a non-anthropocentric theory, to avoid the human is to obfuscate the ideological, economic, and political conditions of emergence that necessarily shape any theory of nature or culture. It is irresponsible and naive at best, and incredibly dangerous and fascistic at worst. For example, Earth First!ers tend to look at human beings ecologically, or as one more "natural population" that has exceeded the carrying capacity of its range; hence, as with rabbits, algae, deer, or locusts in similar circumstances, there must be a catastrophic crash or mass die-off to re-equilibrate networks of ecological exchange. The most famous and problematic incarnation of this position was an article in the Earth First! journal that argued that AIDS was a good thing because it would reduce the pressures of human population on the earth, and consequently, governments should do nothing to help African countries with the epidemic. Although this statement was later retracted, the Earth First! tendency to take a virulently anti-humanist stance has problematic ramifications for the ethico-political communities of kinship they imagine. Although they embrace a profoundly ecological view that equates all life, they tend to exclude humans from many of their accounts, and thus cannot address issues of environmental justice and the role of hierarchical and exploitative social and political ecologies that produce the conditions of environmental degradation. Chim Blea, a pseudonym for a member of Earth First!, argues that: "We as Deep Ecologists recognize the transcendence of the community over any individual, we should deal with all individuals—animal, plant, mineral, etc. – with whom we come into contact with compassion and bonhomie" (qtd in Luke 23). The (eco)fascistic tendencies emerge in the complete subsumption of the individual to an imagined community, without a framework being established for adjudicating how, what, and where one organism should live, and another die. If everyone is truly equal, then what does it matter if nature dies in order for humanity to survive? In a strange way, any biocentric theory must take a detour through anthropocentrism.

[11] And in this sense, Darwin is a key figure. He was instrumental in shattering the Arcadian view of nature based on a Romantic concept of pastoral harmony. His focus on struggle and violence unsettled people's notion of a benevolent creator and creation in place for humankind. Popular kinship imaginaries now had to contend with a natural world that was decidedly inhumane and violent, denuded of a benevolent original mover that provided all life with the means to survive, and the divine right for human domination. What emerged, according to Donald Worster, was a "dismal science" of nature red in tooth and claw, even though Darwin himself placed a high degree of emphasis on mutual aide and cooperation. This had the effect of decentring humanity and thus providing the necessary first steps towards a biocentric environmental ethic of rhizomatic interconnectivity. However, it also tended to provide the ideological naturalization of violence, competition, and hiearchized human superiority. The same act of decentring had profoundly antithetical consequences in terms of humbling and aggrandizing humanity within the networks of worldly kinship, making humans on the one hand, just one member of the great chain of being, and on the other, the rightful conquerors and creators of an earthly garden of Eden (c.f. Merchant). Thus, "to dwell on the violence and suffering in Nature was, from the mid-nineteenth century on, to be 'realistic'" (Worster 128).

[12] While Worster is correct in identifying Darwin's role in the scientific disenchantment of the Arcadian view of nature, and the shift from an economic model based on harmony, divine providence, and abundance, to an economy of competition, violence, and suffering, a careful attention to Darwin's language reveals a much more complex interaction between competition and cooperation, one that is more in line with a rhizomatic conception of nature, than an arboreal one. For example, In Descent of Man, Darwin is very biocentric, arguing that "nature appears as a world essentially held together by lines of 'mutual love and sympathy'" (182). This was very typical of Darwin's work, and he would often seek to simultaneously affirm and deny the struggle for existence as violent and competitive, attempting the delicate balance of holding mutualism and competition in a dynamic flux. For example, he argues that "a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture" (Origin 62). The notion of arboreal hierarchy often ascribed to Darwin ignores these frequent appeals to rhizomatic solidarity, and his careful attention to the way language frames our understanding of kinship networks. In one form or another, Darwin often stated: "all survival is socially determined," and nature is a "web of complex relations," in which "no individual organism or species can live independently of that web" (qtd in Worster 156). Especially if we consider Darwin's debt to Lyell, post-Darwinian concepts of nature were rooted/routed through a continual flux and migration of all life. Unlike the Linnaean notion of a divine order where every organism was given a place in nature that did not change, Darwin attributed a rhizomatic motion to nature, understanding it as an infinitely dynamic economy in a constant state of flux. No organism was divinely appointed to a specific niche, and no environment was immune to change. By shattering the notion of a divine mover and static creation, Darwin's so-called tree of life begins to resemble a rhizome. There is no such thing as balance and harmony: Nature is no longer static, it is a rhizomatic structure of proliferating lines of flight that multiply endlessly in perpetual de and reterritorialization between beings.

[13] So how do we read the Origin of Species? Is its appeal to an arborescent origin, or is there something rhizomatic about it? The notion of origins and order is arborescent, but the principles of evolution are rhizomatic. Politically, Darwinism has become an arborescent system, but from the point of view of kinship imaginaries, it is rhizomatic. Arborescence organizes, segments, and orders according to first principles. This is the Darwinism of order and origins, and the consequence of the racist reductionism by the likes of Herbert Spencer that naturalizes the fierce competition of an economic order by appealing to evolution. The rhizomatic is about flow, deterritorialization, space without boundary, edge or linearity. It is escape, flight, flux, flow, and never-ceasing movement. This describes Darwin's notion of evolution quite accurately: the dynamic flux and flow of genetic information in a process of de and reterritorialization that transforms species and individuals in relation to the flux of all the forces around them. The totality is but an assemblage, an incomprehensible multiplicity that transforms itself in the act of becoming. There is no beginning or end, just ceaseless change and rhizomatic flux.

Arborescent Darwinism

The Growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest.
Rockefeller, qtd. in Appleman 487

[14] All biological discourses are necessarily shaped by political economy, a perfect example of the co-constitution of nature and culture, and thus the necessity of close deconstruction. Although the phrase "survival of the fittest" is synonymous with most popular conceptions of Darwinism, the term was Herbert Spencer's and not Darwin's. So while Darwin was trying to situate humanity back in the natural order, careful to use the struggle for existence and natural selection as metaphors, many people rallied around his ideas for their own dubious ideological causes. They transformed the complicated notion of evolution as co-constitutive and dynamic, with no goal or departure point, but rather a series of endless adaptations, into a teleological narrative of perfection and progress that served various nationalistic and racist agendas. Perhaps the most influential of these interpretive appropriations was Herbert Spencer's, which began what we now know as social Darwinism, and which in effect collapsed survival and struggle into one another in a blatantly ideological tautology that applied the "implications of science to social thought and action" (Hofstadter 490). Spencer believed that "evolution can end only in the establishment of the greatest perfection and the most complete happiness" (Hofstadter 491), and for him, perfection was embodied by a specific class of European gentry. Even before Darwin, he applied the Malthusian theory of population to a theory of social selection that was incredibly callus to social conditions. In 1852 he stated that "the pressures of subsistence upon population must have a beneficent effect upon the human race," or in other words, starvation is good for the species as a whole because it weeds out the poor and weak (Hofstadter 492). There are frightening similarities to Earth First!'s argument about AIDS, suggesting once again that we need to attend to the rhizomatics of domination before we whole-heartedly embrace the rhizome as a kinship model. Spencer vehemently attacked Benthamism and social reform on the basis that they interfered with the natural machinations of a laissez faire market place that followed the laws of evolution. He was against helping the poor because this would interfere with the "the ultimate development of the ideal man" (Hofstadter 492). The state should not interfere with the market because "the whole effort of Nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them [the poor], and make room for better" (Hofstadter 493).

[15] We can see obvious resonances here with current discourses surrounding neoliberalism, in which the market seeks to replace the environment by mediating all social, political, and environmental interactions within a supposedly fair social Darwinism. The struggle for existence, or competition, is seen as a positive force of inevitable perfection, which, if left to its own, will act like nature and weed out the weak and unworthy, and reward the strong. The market functions as an evolutionary sieve that separates the strong from the degenerate, and thus collapses society into the choices of isolated bourgeois monads. Structural violence is ameliorated into the amoral rhetoric of survival strategies, and the rich become the legitimate bearers of evolutionary capital. Thus, it is easy for Carnegie to state: "All is well since all grows better" (Hofstadter 497), and avoid the difficult questions of privilege and artificial selection within an unjust political economy, which would throw the whole equation into question. I could see Darwin responding by stating that the arena of artificial selection pales next to that of Nature, and any economic evolution would therefore be necessarily flawed and imperfect. The focus on antagonism, unsocial sociability (Kant), and competition is not only violent and callus to the inequities faced by those on the bottom of the "evolutionary rung," it also favors those who already have power by creating a reverse-teleology that naturalizes their own ascent to power. The kinship chain that emerges is one of isolated egos violently competing for limited resources. Michel Zimmerman proposes that

so long as people conceive of themselves as isolated egos, only externally related to other people and nature, they inevitably tend to see life in terms of scarcity and competition. When people conceive of themselves as internally related to others and to nature, however, they tend to see life in terms of bounty, not scarcity, and in terms of cooperation, not aggressive competition (Zimmerman 242).

And thus in order to get to the heart of the environmental crisis, we must address the implications of various kinship imaginaries as they align humanity and nature along a continuum of struggle, competition, and harmony.

[16] For example, Elizabeth Behnke argues that we must resist a frontal knowledge of Nature that knows it from above and, instead, confront "Nature as a totality of sheer things ... in such a way that being known (or being-object) becomes the measure of being" (Benhke 95). She offers an alternative to the Cartesian ontology by resisting frontal knowing in favor of speaking within nature, and thus being a part of it: "We must learn to speak from within this Nature that surrounds and includes us" (95). She takes this framework and tries to apply it in order to create a practical, "embodied ethics" for interspecies peace (Benhke 96). She shifts language into the body, learning to decode and recode somatic semantics, or somantics, in a way that enables and fosters interspecies peace and a kinship of life by learning to harmonize "kinetic melodies" (109) and becoming a co-participant in fluid situations. This does not mean that all encounters will be peaceful or even possible; however, openness is an essential first step. She embraces the notion of an "improvisational" or "wild body" that enables us to push at the boundaries of our semiotic, cultural, and historical contexts and engage in communication with significant others (Behnke 108). By taking the posture of "primordial motility" (107), we can hope to adapt and listen by abandoning the "pervasive style of separative seeing that makes Being, Nature, Others, etc., into objects over-against a subject" (108).

[17] But how do you resist this frontal knowing and enable modes of interbeing that embrace the "counter-intuitive geometries and incongruent translations necessary to getting on together" (Haraway Companion 25)? The implication of rhizomatic thought, with its emphasis on becoming and flow is one such way. Behnke echoes Deleuze and Guattari in many ways, speaking of a subjectivity that is unfixed and in constant flux and thus resistant to overcoding. The notion of an improvisational body seems to, on some fundamental level, abandon a desire to be one with nature in favor of a mixing or, as with the wasp and the orchid, a kind of semiotic translation through a process of de- and reterritorialization. In this context, we can see echoes of Delueze and Guattari rejecting unity: "The notion of unity (unité) appears only when there is a power takeover in the multiplicity by the signifier or a corresponding subjectification proceeding" (8). This artificial unity is similar to a view of the world from a strictly anthropocentric standpoint: a semiotic overcoding of the human that renders the multiplicity of nature unintelligible by naturalizing the human and humanizing nature. The way in which Darwinism has been deployed politically, emphasizing the arborescent logic of purity, origins, and struggle, is a perfect example of this kind of overcoding. From a critical standpoint, rhizomatics can help us resist this overcoding by providing a language for becoming-nature that does not separate or blindly ameliorate, but rather, celebrates the messiness of becoming. The kinship imaginary that emerges is one that, on a fundamental level, is profoundly multiple and resonates with the ecological precept that everything is connected to everything else, without seeking a knee-jerk and uncritical union or unity.

[18] Narratives of origin are struggles over the future as much as the past, in that they set the initial vectors of biopower. The focus on struggle within the various appropriations of Darwinism is nothing but the use of biology to justify the Hobbesian State of Nature, the war of all against all, and as such, must be countered with more politically just narratives of origins, even if those are equally politically inflected. While many of Darwin's contemporaries transformed his theory into a justification for their political and economic climate, and therefore de-moralized questions of poverty and justice, Darwinism was also picked up by thinkers like Peter Kropotkin (1902), who emphasized the "Law of Mutual Aid" as the motive force of nature. Based on observation of animals and plants in Siberia, he concluded that when there is a large scarcity of food, "no progressive evolution of the species can be based upon such periods of keen competition" (520). Instead, he draws on a movement out of the University of St. Petersburg that focused on Darwin's observations of morality, sociability, and intellectual development within social animals. Kropotkin believed it was dangerous to "reduce animal sociability to love and sympathy" (522), and instead, proposed a theory of solidarity and sociability that did justice to the evolutionary befits of mutual aid. In essence, he rejected the Hobbsian bellum omnium contra omnes, arguing that "the numberless followers of Darwin reduced the notion of struggle for existence to its narrowest limits. They came to conceive the animal world as a world of perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals thirsting for one another's blood" (Kropotkin 524). Ultimately, Kropotkin argues that it was equally dangerous to view nature as pure struggle, or pure harmony, as "sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle" (525), both of which represent different evolutionary forces at work. He believed that social animals were the fittest, using the example of ants, which are among the most numerous and successful insects in the world, as a case where "mutual aid has entirely taken the place of mutual struggle" (526).

[19] The emphasis on struggle, even in Darwin, was likely the result of the fact that Darwin relied on Malthus almost religiously, and thus failed to theorize fertility itself as a product of natural selection, and as such, the ratio between sexual productivity and food production remained dismal and thus favored a view of nature based on competition. However, the Malthusian ratio only applies under conditions of ecological disturbance (Worster 155), and does not adequately account for species differentiation as a force counter to competition. Thus, instead of competing for the same food source, a species can differentiate and find a new source. It can proceed rhizomatically rather than arboreally, proliferating new shoots and lines of flight. Divergence allows organisms to create new places in nature's economy without resorting to competition: "Diversity was nature's way of getting round the fiercely competitive struggle for limited resources" (Worster 161).

Rhizomes, Microbes, and Trees: Towards a More Critical Rhizomatic Thinking

[20] Although a truly rhizomatic paper would resist conclusions, I am moving towards an assemblage of points, that I hope, ties things together, while also leaving them open. Thus to end is only to begin, and I propose that Darwin is both an end and a beginning to thinking about current debates within biotechnology, and the different kinship imaginaries enabled and disabled by the recent discovery of a Archaea, a group of marine microbes that live in thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, and who transfer genes laterally, between individuals, as well as vertically, between generations (Helmreich). These microbes have shattered many conceptions of evolution and origins because they disrupt Darwin's "natural classifications" and the link between genealogy and taxonomy. They are truly rhizomatic creatures, both materially, and discursively, and are providing biotechnology companies with a justification for genetic engineering and a new means, through new vectors of gene transfer, to improve the techniques of genetic modification. This strange new bacteria is very appealing to biotech firms because it allows them to work as both engineer (man the tinkerer) and as botanist (man the gatherer). The claim to the former allows for the patenting of genes based on novelty (c.f. Shiva), while the latter, allows these companies to avoid regulatory scrutiny by claiming substantial equivalence between the genetically modified organism and its natural counterpart. It is based on this substantial equivalence that GMO foods are not labeled in Canada and the US. By shifting our understanding of the origins of the tree of life towards a rhizomatic model, a new set of kinship imaginaries emerges, with competing vectors of biopower emerging from the very same argument.

[21] Once again, Darwin's own struggles are illustrative. For example, a biocentric worldview was fostered by Darwin's removal of God from the cosmic equation, since the Genesis invocation towards domination, and the special place of man in the scala naturae was challenged (c.f. Merchant, Lynn White Jr.). However, as God was replaced as Nature's original mover, and creation was seen as "replete with errors, weaknesses, imperfections, and misfits" (Worster 175), the human place within the order became much more amenable to a Baconian concept of absolute domination. As such, "Man must proclaim himself Nature's engineer and must then see about creating his own paradise on earth" (Worster 176). This is very similar to the kind of discourse within biotechnological circles, which refers to lateral gene transfer as nature's genetic engineering, and thus justifies their own socially, politically, and economically mediated practice as somehow entirely natural (Heimlreich 348). Although the idea is not new, the rhizomatic flow of Archaea provides a new mode of justification and framework for Man the (bio)engineer, one that draws on rhizomatic and ostensibly ecological kinship networks to justify unscrupulous economic, political, and biological practices.

[22] Thus, while Deleuze and Guattari maintain that rhizomes never allow themselves to be overcoded (9), we can read biotechnological uses of rhizomatic horizontal gene transfer (as a technique and as a discourse), as precisely this kind of overcoding, whereby the organism is taken over by a practice of signification and subjectification, in this case by the expansion of capital into the interior space of cells and genes through patents. The celebration of rhizomatic lines of flight fails to account for the rhizomatics of domination present in the biopolitical over- and re-coding of genetic information through the patenting of life forms (IPRs), biopiracy, and biotechnological research that seeks to colonize the very interior of life itself (c.f. Shiva, Haraway). In a sense, the rhizome provides new inroads for corporations to claim ownership of life by setting a precedent for bioengineering in the very heart of evolution, and thereby naturalizing a deeply colonial and parasitic relationship in a manner that echoes what happened to Darwin's theories.

[23] Stephen Helmreich explores this further by examining the potential restructuring of kinship imaginaries in new scientific research on Archaea. He argues that "the taxonomic untidiness such microbes have introduced through their lateral gene transfer reaches beyond issues in phylogeny and molecular systematics into arenas adjacent to kinship concerns and biopolitics" (341). By potentially shifting the meaning of bios in the biopolitical equation, these microbes may usher in a revolution of biotechnological discourse akin to Darwin's, realigning the vectors of biopower within new constellations of violence in the name of social good. The common argument launched by companies like Monsanto who claim that GMO crops, like Golden Rice, are the only way to feed the world's hungry masses, exploits rhizomatic concepts of evolution in order to justify the incorporation of genetic codes into the informational economy. Thus, while discourses of kinship, race and origins have moved away from talk of miscegenation, this new rhizomatic openness is being greeted with a concurrent closure of the genetic commons as corporations manipulate new kinship imaginaries in order to patent life itself. This is especially the case with these thermophyllic microbes, whose main commercial use promises to increase the speed and efficiency of genetic engineering by providing new viral vectors capable of transferring genetic information at higher temperatures. Moreover, the "natural genetic engineering" (Heimlreich 348) of these microbes is being used as a justification for human engineering, which is interpreted as natural and safe.

[24] However, as Vandana Shiva points out, this reductionist view of nature, with conveniently shifting discourses of artifice and nature used to simultaneously justify the safety of "naturally" engineered organisms, and the appeal to scientific creation and novelty for the purposes of patenting, ends with Nature being declared as "dead, inert, and valueless" (Shiva 24). Corporations are thus able to recode biodiversity as a genetic investment strategy (Haraway Vampires 351), and use the flexibility of rhizomatic kinship in the same opportunistic and selective way that Darwin's contemporaries took up his account of the struggle for existence as a justification for fierce capitalistic competition. Thus, while on the surface the conceptual untidiness of rhizomatic, lateral gene transfer has the potential to strangle "the roots of the infamous tree" (Deleuze and Guattari xiii) and provide new kinship imaginaries capable of dealing with a messy and interdependent world, it is fundamentally important that we ask "how a genetically shuffled bios might be inscribed into new biopolitics" (Helmreich 342).

[25] In the rhizomatics of domination characteristic of corporate funded genetic engineering and biopiracy, the benefits of rhizomatic kinship are subsumed by the hierarchical accumulation of capital, while the dangers of biological contamination, the development of super-viruses and weeds, and the devaluing of traditional forms of knowledge are felt horizontally by the entire biocultural network of organisms. Taxonomy is shifting from kind to Brand, from Man the Hunter and Woman the Gatherer to Man™ and Woman™ (Haraway Vampires 350). So while these marine organisms challenge the genealogical origins of species and open up the possibility for the kinds of kinship connections Haraway valorizes in Cyborgs and Vampires, a radically open concept of kinship also leaves us prone to a rhizomatics of domination. We can take a lesson from the ways in which Darwinism became a justification for forms of biopower he no doubt would have found egregious. There is much in rhizomatic theory that makes it invaluable for theorizing new forms of kinship necessary for addressing the unhealthy relationships humans have with the planet in the age of ecological crisis. However, in the same way that Darwinism became used to justify fascistic and nationalistic forms of power, rhizomatic theory is very amenable to reconfigurations of bios within biotechnological discourses of life. By using Darwin as a kind of test case, we can resist the rhizomatics of domination from choking the roots of a very different kind of plant, one which, if we are careful, has the potential to knit a network of kinship capable of addressing the messy and complicated environmental crisis we now face.


[1] Kinship imaginaries are discourses about the relationship between nature and culture that focus on the ways in which humans relate to the world and ultimately each other.

[2] I am specifically thinking about the way that systems of networks and information, while liberating us from certain older forms of oppression and domination, open up whole new systems of power that may be more difficult to locate and resist.

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