Posts Tagged ‘E.O. Wilson’

“Social Conquest of Earth”

April 27, 2012

Listened yesterday to the podcast of E.O. Wilson’s recent SALT (“Long term thinking”) talk about his new book, which I’ve started reading.

First the social insects ruled, from 60 million years ago. Then a species of social mammals took over, from 10 thousand years ago. Both sets of “eusocial” animals mastered the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. They would specialize for the group and die for the group. In recent decades the idea of “kin selection” seemed to explain how such an astonishing phenomenon could evolve. Wilson replaces kin selection with “multi-level selection,” which incorporates both individual selection (long well understood) and group selection (long considered taboo). Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs. SB

He may or may not be right about “multi-level selection” and our intrinsically conflicted human nature, torn between self, kin, and larger group identities; but the man himself is a marvel, still producing important and controversial scholarship at age 82. His advice for how the most reckless and self-centered group on earth should manage its ecosystem: “leave it alone.” His advice to individuals: don’t retire.

I intend to follow his advice, the man clearly knows something about managing over the long haul. If he’s right, there’s still hope that our species is becoming and will continue to become gradually more cooperative and less selfish over time. And isn’t this just the sort of prophecy that can be self-fulfilling? I’m rooting for him to be right, and for “What I need” eventually to converge with “what we need.” And then we’ll all live happily ever after. Right?


February 7, 2011

We’ve created a culture of self-termination, says Daniel Wildcat in Red Alert! at the beginning of chapter three, because we don’t value bio-diversity. We don’t understand the extent of our dependence on non-human species. “Who the hell cares about the snail darter?” Or even, come to that, about polar bears, orangutans, sea turtles, woodpeckers? Maybe we can keep a few in zoos, for our amusement, but we don’t need them. We don’t need to be overly concerned with endangered hotspots? Do we?

There’s lots more on E.O. Wilson and biodiversity at TED, including a wonderful talk from the late Douglas Adams. Thanks for all the fish, indeed.

We think we need our gadgets and the networks they navigate, but Oscar Kawagley (who prayed to “the spiritual person of the universe” at book’s beginning) says he’s a “technological dunce and proud of it. ” Should we emulate him? Surely not.

But are our computer models doing anything to help us roll back the ominous projections of melting ice caps and rising seas? Seems like maybe they are, actually.

Red Alert! is a consistent repudiation of attempts to dominate, control, subdue, or otherwise manage nature. I understand the sentiment, just as I understand the impulse to regard it all as sacred. But I’m still not convinced that this entails so stern a “hands off.” What’s the point of evolving a capacity for intelligence if you’re unwilling to use it?

Thinking “like a mountain,” slowly and with an eye on what Stewart Brand and his friends call the Long Now: will that help us think concretely and constructively about the future of life?

“Changes in our everyday mundane life activities”– with light bulbs, modes of transport, patterns of consumption generally– sound to some like too little, too late. But what else can it mean to “become the change” to which you aspire?

Making technology more attentive “to the life around us” sounds so smart and obvious, until you try to give the idea specific content. Are we really talking about technology at all? Isn’t it people who must be more attentive? The technology’s fine, in fact. We just have to learn how and when to lay it down and go out for a walk.

Aldo Leopold‘s “biotic community” included land, air, water, and all the forms of life attached thereto.  His “land ethic” is clear and hard to improve on:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community…

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. Sand County Almanac [more from Leopold]

Our form of life now includes Internet cafes, shopping malls, and gambling casinos. Is there not a way for them all to co-exist?

“Ecological pluralism”acknowledges the reality of religious diversity. Does it do more? Does it block religious disagreement? All are related, mitakua oyasin, but some relations are easier to be with than others.

Another of Wildcat’s impressive but vague phrases: “life-enhancing nature-culture nexus.” I’m all for it, I’m sure. But what is it?

Once again: native wisdom on paper looks pragmatic to the core, all experimental and open-ended and respectful of nature. But does this tradition really challenge its own ancestral legacy? That’s what a self-critical, self-correcting, fallibilistic method of inquiry is supposed to do.

“Future” begins

August 30, 2010

I have to say it at least once: The future is now.

The “Future of Life” course, that is. It starts today. Trying to get a jump-start, I’ve emailed students (though Beloit says the “1st Yrs,” the Class of 2014— born in 1992!– don’t really do email anymore) and asked them to begin pondering a statement from William James in his Pragmatism, at the end of his third lecture:

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. To shift the emphasis in this way means that philosophic questions will fall to be treated by minds of a less abstractionist type than heretofore, minds more scientific and individualistic in their tone yet not irreligious either. It will be an alteration in ‘the seat of authority’ that reminds one almost of the protestant reformation. And as, to papal minds, protestantism has often seemed a mere mess of anarchy and confusion, such, no doubt, will pragmatism often seem to ultra-rationalist minds in philosophy. It will seem so much sheer trash, philosophically. But life wags on, all the same, and compasses its ends, in protestant countries. I venture to think that philosophic protestantism will compass a not dissimilar prosperity. Gutenberg etext

I’ve asked my still-future students (or the ones who still read email, anyhow): Do you agree with James? Wherein lies the “vitality,” for you? Or is the future a black box any normally-constituted human should expect to have difficulty imagining or caring about? What would it mean, really to care about it? How would, or how does, caring impact your choices and actions?

That’s part of what our course will be about. “Future” and “life” both sprawl in an almost untameable way, of course, so we’ll have plenty of parsing to do as we go along. That means even more basic, orienting questions: Is the future all about me, or about us, at all? Or is it all about successors to whom our relation is murky? Should we consider our main obligation to be to ourselves as individuals, to our (contingent) historical epoch, to our wider communities, our DNA, the species, the planet, the carboniferous form of life, or— as the late Carl Sagan said– to the very cosmos, “ancient and vast” and ongoing, itself?

So many questions. We’ll begin looking for answers with a nod to Dan Dennett, who pointed out that we are the beneficiaries of generations of people who cared about us while knowing they’d never meet us, and with a forward-looking glance backward from 19th century futurist Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward“). How easy it is to get details wrong, but how exciting to dream of real progress in subduing the inherited scourges– including economic and political as well as biological plagues– of the past.

Then, Sagan’s calendar and the Long Now Foundation’s clock (“now“),’s “Third Culture” crowd, Jaron Lanier, Bill McKibben, Richard Powers,  maybe E.O. Wilson and Aubrey de Grey too.

So many possibilities, in the great open-ended pluralistic universe. I talked about some of them on the radio back in the Spring, when the future seemed so far off.

But first, it being the first day, we’ll introduce ourselves. I’m tired of being “Dr. Phil,” maybe I’ll pass along Older Daughter’s suggestion that, in this class at least, I become “Phil of the future.”

thoroughly modern Henry

June 7, 2010

E.O. Wilson opens his Future of Life with a charming, fanciful monologue directed at old Thoreau. The name is correctly pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, marking its subject as a “thorough” naturalist, and Wilson’s first big point is that Henry’s world is not so far removed from ours as the short-term view of time and life incline us to imagine.

Thoreau’s brief time on Earth lasted just long enough for him to have caught the first edition of Origin of Species. He died in 1862, at 44, three years after Darwin’s detonation of the old delusion about our separability from the rest of nature. Thoreau understood our interconnectedness and our native biophilia implicitly. Thoroughly.

And he understood that time is a fast-flowing tributary uniting us with generations not at all far upstream or down. He would grasp Wilson’s point entirely:

I am old enough to have had tea with Darwin’s last surviving granddaughter… I discussed my first articles on evolution with Julian Huxley, who as a little boy sat on the knee of his grandfather T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog”…as a child I could have spoken to old men who visited you at Walden Pond when they were children of the same age. Thus only one living memory separates us.

We’re connected across the years in a much tighter weave than we often allow. In this summer of the great spreading gulf oil spill, can any of us still seriously doubt that we’re connected to the planet just as tightly, or that when we scar it we injure ourselves? 

Wilson closes his epistle with a lament we must echo louder today:

The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes– cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.

No one in your time could imagine a disaster of this magnitude…

this they believe

March 23, 2010

Speaking of Unitarians, Elizabeth Anderson was one. Her parents had been raised Lutheran and (culturally) Jewish but as adults rejected the local representatives of those traditions who rejected them in their recombinant marriage and turned to the UUs.

“Unitarianism is a church without a creed; there are no doctrinal requirements of membership. (Although Bertrand Russell once quipped that Unitarianism stands for the proposition that there is at most one God, these days pagans are as welcome as all others.) It was a pretty good fit for us, until the New Age spiritualists started to take over the church. That was too loopy for my father’s rationalistic outlook, so we left.”

Pretty much my story too.  But I’m as down with the interdependent web of all existence as anybody. Guess that strikes some traditionalists as pagan too.

Anderson leads off today’s readings in A&S with an impressive rejection of the canard that you can’t be good without God. (Sam Harris has interesting new thoughts on the fact-value distinction he shared at TED recently.)

The other canard we’ve scrutinized this semester is the stereotype of atheists as negative nay-saying nabobs who only know what they’re against. That’s the regrettable, sordid legacy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but most thoughtfully-Godless folk are for plenty. The magician Penn Gillette offered his “This I Believe” testament in an affirming spirit– “No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future, with more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O…”  —but it was still purveyed under the barely-affirming title “There is no God.” Sigh.

More of us need to speak up, in that forum and others, to dispel the false perception of Godlessness as akin to Scrooge-hood. Gillette’s is at the top of the queue of (as of this writing) 136 atheism-themed essays. [Click here to submit your essay to “This I Believe.”  I did. ] When I found the little piece I’d dashed off to celebrate the lunar landing anniversary back in the summer posted on TIB’s website recently it was like Christmas in January.

Also today: Ian McEwan’s “End of the World Blues” (aka “Day of Judgment“*), Steven Weinberg from Dreams of a Final Theory (not taking back his famous gut-punch statement “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” but adding “I did not mean that science teaches us” this), Salman Rushdie humming Lennon and imagining God as a dispensable concept, and the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq’s Why I am not a Muslim. (Muslim Spirit– has Hitch been abducted? Unofficial Warraq site)

*McEwan says it’s time to tell a new story:

“Thirty years ago, we might have been able to convince ourselves that contemporary religious apocalyptic thought was a harmless remnant of a more credulous, superstitious, pre-scientific age, now safely behind us. But today prophecy belief, particularly within the Christian and Islamic traditions, is a force in our contemporary history, a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical, and military concerns. The various jealous sky-gods – and they are certainly not one and the same god – who in the past directly addressed Abraham, Paul, or Mohammed, among others, now indirectly address us through the daily television news. These different gods have wound themselves inextricably around our politics and our political differences.”

Biophilia would be better.