Beyond words: more-than-human communication paving the way for naturekind
Reported by Victoria Price, CSaP Policy Intern (April-July, 2023)
This year's Dr Seng Tee Lee Public Policy Lecture was delivered by social anthropologist and geographer Professor Melissa Leach. The lecture brought forth the concept of ‘naturekind’, directly challenging the conventional separation between human and non-human nature.
Professor Melissa Leach, the director of the Institute for Development Studies and a Fellow at the British Academy, was introduced by the lecture chair, Professor Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy in the Department of Politics and International Studies. Professor Leach has dedicated her career to interdisciplinary research in Africa and beyond, with a particular focus on the politics of science and policy processes across a variety of fields.
Redefining the human-nature relationship
Professor Leach started the lecture by arguing against the prevailing belief that humans are fundamentally separate from other forms of life and emphasised the need to recognise and appreciate the interconnectedness between humans and nature. Proposing a theory of communication across naturekind, which synthesises different strands of scientific research to include humans, animals, plants, and the environment, Professor Leach then argued that this theory recognises the complex web of meaning and communication that extends beyond human societies.
Professor Leach then started discussing the historical and philosophical roots of human exceptionalism, which has perpetuated the notion that language and culture are uniquely human attributes. However, she highlighted that indigenous worldviews and recent advancements in the social sciences and humanities have challenged this separation, paving the way for a more inclusive understanding of communication across species. She further discussed that communication is not limited to verbal language but encompasses a broad range of modes and senses used by various species, including insects and plants.
Signs, syntax and soils
Drawing on her personal experiences of horse-riding, Professor Leach explained how through coordinated pressure and nuanced cues, the speaker and the horse engage in a conversation, creating meaning through signs in a wider field. She then started exploring the remarkable communication abilities of bats, which have taken on new considerations in human life following the Covid-19 pandemic. Professor Leach stated that despite their reliance on ultrasound and echolocation, bats also communicate through visual signs and movements. Arguing that bats exemplify mutual accommodation and intertwined lives, forming an integral part of the ecosystem, Professor Leach also discussed that bats demonstrate the need for inclusive approaches that maintain shared spaces while reducing risks.
Professor Leach then delved into the realm of soils, highlighting their role in food systems and ecological well-being and discussed that soil scientists and ecologists now recognise the complex interactions between organisms and chemical processes within soil ecosystems. Emphasising the importance of meta signs in human-soil conservation conversations, Professor Leach said that the presence of earthworms or termite mounds serves as indicators of soil fertility, shaping agricultural practices and land use decisions.
By understanding and engaging with these more-than-human conversations, Professor Leach suggested that new alignments can emerge between the natural sciences and the post-human revolution in social sciences and humanities. She also stated that this interdisciplinary approach challenges prevailing separations between humans and the environment, paving the way for policies that prioritise multi-species care, conviviality, and justice.
Towards a policy of and for naturekind
During the Q&A session following the lecture, the audience raised thought-provoking questions highlighting the complexities of engaging with non-human beings and the importance of considering multiple perspectives, space for nuance, and challenging existing norms and beliefs. In response, Professor Leach emphasised the importance of open dialogue, multimodal education, and recognising the uncertainties and power dynamics inherent in conversations with non-human beings. She also stressed that understanding the significance of communication in these contexts opens new dimensions for reconnecting with nature and incorporating it into strategies for physical and mental well-being.
Professor Leach's lecture urged a re-evaluation of prevailing scientific and policy perspectives that separate humans from the non-human world. By embracing a more holistic approach, she argued that society can better address the intersecting environmental crises and promote sustainable transformations. She also called for a shift away from divisive approaches that rupture communication and dispossess local communities. Instead, Professor Leach advocated for pathways that enable humans and non-human natures to thrive together, drawing inspiration from indigenous and everyday practices.
You can watch and listen to the lecture recording here: