Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bull in the china shop

“The very idea that human beings, who are demonstrably unable to control our own most destructive behaviors, are going to be “stewards of the ecology”, or “manage ecosystems”, is absurd. It’s proposing that the bull should become the “steward” of the china shop.”

Believe it or not I'm actually sympathetic to your views, and shared them 100% until fairly recently. You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist whose work has criticized humanity more stridently than mine, but my views are evolving.

We're at a juncture in human history when more than ever before, it actually matters what people think. This wasn't nearly as true in centuries or even decades past, because information traveled much more slowly and was less crucial to people's daily lives. Today decisions frequently have global ramifications, and the discussions that influence them are increasingly volatile and public. Some of those discussions may be occurring right here, and not all of them are purely scientific or technical. Ideas spread like wildfire at the moment, whether they're constructive or not.

Mitigating climate change means rapidly transforming the entire physical basis of our existence: energy infrastructure, agriculture, transportation, architecture, urban planning, population size and distribution, and on and on, like a kind of green Manhattan project. In order for people to actually get up every morning and deal with the enormous amount of work involved, they need to be inspired.

E.O.Wilson tries hard to inspire people by comparing them to ants, with the best of intentions, but it won't work. Reminding people that they're insignificant on a cosmic scale won't work either: they already feel helpless. One idea that possibly could inspire people quickly enough is betterment of the human condition, via active participation in civil society. This implies a widespread invigoration of existing civil traditions and values, including literacy, tolerance, egalitarianism, association, and cooperation. There's already momentum in this direction, in the Occupy movement and elsewhere, building on the civil rights and anti-war struggles.

The problems civilization faces won't be solved by flash mobs alone, any more than by the invisible hand of the market. Only governments have the power to effect change at the needed scale and pace, and governments are comprised of people, all the way up to the top; people who like the rest of us need to be convinced of the urgency and scale of the problems, persuaded that solutions exist, and inspired to fight for a livable future.

People need to believe that what they're doing can and will make a difference, no matter how uncertain things seem. They also need education, and health care, and countless other things, but above all they need hope. The problem with antihumanism, whether scientific or artistic, is that it deprives people of hope, at exactly the moment when they most need it.


SA @307:

Of course the cessation of human activities, such as the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, that would accompany the disappearance of all that human biomass would be a boon to the biosphere.

It's like you're trying to impress everyone with your indifference to humanity, as though cultural insensitivity is somehow a corollary of scientific knowledge. The whole point of us becoming more enlightened (in both the sciences AND the humanities) over the last four centuries was to make us MORE sensitive to human culture, and more willing to make sacrifices for, and exhibit altruism towards people who aren't immediate family members, aren't from our 'tribe', or aren't even born yet. Eventually that altruism may even extend to the biosphere and your beloved algae. Obviously it's a work in progress and we're facing severe difficulties at the moment, but I don't see how it helps anyone to say that we should just buzz off and leave Earth to the ants, nor do I believe that's E.O.Wilson's view; on the contrary he expresses great fondness for humanity in his latest novel "Anthill," and apparently believes our achievements are worth fighting for.

It would be one thing if we were having this discussion on an Earth First blog, but I'm amazed to see stuff like this on RC. Your audience includes highly educated people who have devoted their lives to complex intellectual, linguistic, and symbolic activities that are beyond the capacity of most humans, never mind ants. On RC in particular people are clearly focused on the struggle to save civilization--science included--to whatever extent that's still possible. I sincerely doubt they enjoy hearing that humanity is useless rubbish and that the sooner we disappear the better. I know I sure don't.

Human specialness

SecularAnimist @303 said:

And social animals, including chimpanzees and wolves, clearly do have rights within the context of their social groups. ... do some reading in cognitive ethology. Yes, human beings are "special" — and so are all other species.

A mere 150 years ago, we fought a bitter and protracted war in the United States in large part over the question of whether our society should continue to permit human beings to be treated as, or worse than animals. The Union victory was an essential step forward but was by no means a final resolution of the question, which has continued to plague us, through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, well into the present era.

In Europe an even more catastrophic war was fought against an ideology that proclaimed certain groups of people to be subhuman and therefore without rights. Unlike the Civil War, this is recent history, within the living memory of my parents. There have been plenty more examples since then, including the breakup of Yugoslavia, though thankfully none at similarly global scale (yet).

Despite literally centuries of impassioned debate and conflict, humanity is still struggling to implement the most elementary ethical concepts such as equality, liberty, decency and fairness for human beings (that's you!) Many are aware that the rights of non-humans can and ultimately must be defended just as vigorously, however this is a long-term project, and we aren't likely to make much headway while simultaneously claiming that humans are equivalent to dinosaurs, wolves, algae, etc. We can grant wolves rights, and already have to some extent, but the reverse is simply not true: wolves can't grant us rights, any more than they can study cognitive ethology. This should be obvious but apparently it isn't.

Before we worry about the rights of algae, we'd better get the rights of future generations sorted out, otherwise the algae is going to have the planet all to itself.

PS: I happen to be reading David Orr's "Down to the Wire," and he has much to say on the subject of intergenerational ethics, and the need for honest and inspiring leadership during what he calls the Long Emergency. For example:

We are now engaged in a global conversation about the issues of human longevity on Earth, but no national leader has yet done what Lincoln did for slavery and placed the issue of sustainability in its larger moral context." -p. 88


Edward Greisch @ 296 said:

Science is not "fundamentally progressive"

Progressivism refers not only to the corresponding period of American history, but also to the notion that given sufficient time and effort, people can and should make incremental progress towards shared goals, scientific or otherwise. In science this view is associated with scientific realism, scientific pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, and especially John Dewey, who held "that inquiry, whether scientific, technical, sociological, philosophical or cultural, is self-corrective over time if openly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed truths." (WP, Pragmatic theory of truth)

You should be grateful that science is progressive, because otherwise you would be busy rediscovering the foundations of mathematics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, etc. all by your lonesome self. In fact this was very much the situation at the start of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, if science weren't progressive, we wouldn't be struggling to mitigate climate change right now, because the industrial revolution wouldn't have happened.

The point of the non-existent dinosaur cultural artifacts was to illustrate that it's absurdly and dangerously reductive to simply equate humans with dinosaurs or any other species. If humans weren't special, why would they need names? Why would they need rights? In fact most of them didn't have rights until very recently, and it's been a major source of conflict. Wars have been fought over the idea that people (especially people we don't like) can be treated as things.

Monday, August 13, 2012


SecularAnimist @183 said:

The pathologically anthropocentric view that the world consists of (1) human beings and (2) “resources” for human consumption is really the root of all of our “environmental” problems (and indeed the very word “environment” embodies that view). I don’t think that “solutions” based on that view can solve the problems created by that view.

To be accused of anthropocentrism on a science blog is unexpected and almost comical. Nonetheless the charge is a serious one, and demands a response. The implication is that humanity should be less concerned with its own welfare, and should make sacrifices for the long-term health of the biosphere. This position is not without justification, but also faces several criticisms.

1) Any sacrifices we make for the biosphere will ultimately be futile, because it isn't savable in the long term, due to astronomical factors entirely beyond our control. The biosphere is also totally indifferent to our fate, and would recover with astonishing rapidity were we to exit, voluntarily or otherwise. This scenario has been analyzed in detail, for example by Alan Weisman in "The World Without Us."

2) If humanity was primarily devoted to the welfare of non-humans, we would long since have abandoned sedentary agriculture, civilization and industrialization, and returned to our tribal hunter-gatherer roots. Our treatment of non-humans thus far is instructive: the lucky ones have been domesticated, marginalized, genetically modified, imprisoned and enslaved, while less fortunate species have been starved or hunted to extinction, or willfully exterminated, in some cases for no rational reason. Many subgroups of humanity have received similar treatment, and the trend is uncertain at best. Most ethical problems weren't seriously addressed or even identified until very recently, and we're currently struggling to define and consistently implement universal rights and values for humans, never mind for non-humans or the biosphere.

3) Humanity's anthropocentrism can only be meaningfully debated within the context of our civilization, which is unmistakably anthropocentric in origin. Without civilization there would be no science blogs, and no science to discuss. Science coevolved with civil society, through many stages, including antiquity, scholasticism, and the Enlightenment. The humanistic traditions of rational inquiry, reasoned debate, literacy and democracy are often taken for granted, but without them there's little worth saving. Science not only requires explanations to be testable, but also expects them to improve over time. Science is thus fundamentally progressive, and inextricably bound to the progressivism of civil society.

If people can be persuaded to make sacrifices at all, it will be because they correctly perceive that the welfare of their own descendents--not to mention civilization--depends on such sacrifices. Even this is apparently a long shot, particularly in the United States, where the current leadership seems determined to maximize irrationality, and inflict privation and despair on all but the wealthiest. If civilization survives its present challenges, it may in the distant future attempt to extend civil rights to include the entire biosphere, but in the meantime we should concentrate on more urgent problems, of which there's obviously no shortage.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saving the biosphere

Responding to SecularAnimist @183 on RealClimate Unforced Variations:

"I am most concerned about 'saving' the Earth’s biosphere from utter destruction."
Saving the biosphere is a laudable goal, but the question stands: what are we saving the biosphere for?

The biosphere is ephemeral. Bacteria will ultimately inherit Earth, and witness its destruction. This is arguably just, since bacteria are the most adaptable, the most abundant and have been here the longest. Even within your body, bacteria grossly outnumber your cells. To say that we exist in symbiosis with bacteria is a charitable interpretation. It's more accurate to say that we exist at the behest of tiny but exceedingly powerful and numerous organisms which are completely indifferent to our fate.

If we're saving the biosphere for bacteria, we needn't bother, because they don't need our help. It's we who need help, along with our fellow apex predators. There's an ethical argument that other organisms enjoy existence as much as we do, and therefore have intrinsic value and an inalienable right to exist. This closely relates to arguments previously advanced for universalism and civil rights. In the 20th century many nations became sufficiently enlightened to extend intrinsic value to all human beings, regardless of their race, color or creed, at least in theory. In the 21st century we're in the process of adding sexual orientation to the list, and non-humans could well be next.

Most civilized people support animal rights to some extent, but few would accept that plants also have rights, let alone bacteria. Obviously humans relate to mammals most easily, because we're biologically so similar to them. People can easily tell that their cat or dog is asleep, bored, or in pain, but they're less likely to identify with the internal states of non-mammals. Are we saving Earth for mammals then? E.O.Wilson would surely object, "What about ants?"

If we're saving the biosphere for its intrinsic value, then we have to face not only its impermanence, but also its incompatibility with many aspects of human society. Should we all become vegans? Many think so. Are we willing to abandon our machines, shrink our population, and worship nature as our aboriginal ancestors did? Or embrace Jainism and avoid harming even insects? Very few would go this far, but people are increasingly aware that we can't continue to have everything our way, that urgent choices need to be made.

For better or worse, humans run the show at the moment. The blade of natural selection that normally trims away failure is temporarily blunted. We routinely nourish organisms that would otherwise fail, and exterminate organisms that would otherwise succeed. In other words, we play god, by deciding what lives and what dies. Playing god is the essence of being human, and we'll keep doing it until we tire of it, or wreck things badly enough to be forcibly demoted. We need to be honest, and admit that we're primarily saving Earth for ourselves, so that the cultural odyssey in which we've invested so much time and energy can continue.

Saving culture is not merely a technical problem. It's not just our ingenuity, but our honor and integrity that are being tested, our willingness to make sacrifices for progress towards shared goals. Our aim is more than survival: it's to survive with dignity, while upholding our commitments to hard-won truths and principles. If we're saving Earth at all, we're saving it for future generations, so that they can fulfill our ambitions, by building a wiser and more enlightened society.

Sociobiology and eugenics

Responding to Edward Greisch @197 on RealClimate Unforced Variations:

"Sociobiology has nothing whatsoever to do with eugenics."

A bold statement, but if true, how do you explain this curious photograph?

There's also the inconvenient Eugenics Manifesto of 1939, signed [1] by more than a few founders and champions of what later became sociobiology. The manifesto interestingly lists "fellow-feeling" (in short supply at the time) as an objective of "conscious selection", for example:

... conscious selection requires, in addition, an agreed direction or directions for selection to take, and these directions cannot be social ones, that is, for the good of mankind at large, unless social motives predominate in society. This in turn implies its socialized organization. The most important genetic objectives, from a social point of view, are the improvement of those genetic characteristics which make (a) for health, (b) for the complex called intelligence, and (c) for those temperamental qualities which favour fellow-feeling and social behaviour rather than those (to-day most esteemed by many) which make for personal 'success', as success is usually understood at present. [2]
There were some post-war defections among the signatories, most notably Theodosius Dobzhansky who later said:

Even if the direction of evolution were demonstrated to be "good", man is likely to prefer to be free rather than to be reasonable. [3]

Culture is not inherited through genes; it is acquired by learning from other human beings.... In a sense human genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new non-biological or superorganic agent, culture. [4]

[1] Eugenics manifesto, list of signatories
[2] Social Biology and Population Improvement, full text of eugenics manifesto, with original title, as published in Nature, Sep. 16, 1939
[3] Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biological Basis of Human Freedom, 1956, as referenced in Evolutionary ethics
[4] Against "Sociobiology", NYT Review of Books, Nov. 13, 1975

Friday, August 10, 2012

What's at stake

In a discussion of climate change and its potential solutions, it's important to consider what we're saving, and what we're saving it for. If the goal were only biological survival in the narrowest sense, the problem of climate change would be greatly simplified. For example, imagine a group of geneticists willing and able to reengineer humans so that they no longer posed any threat to each other or their environment. I'm not advocating this, nor is it even my idea: It's the central premise of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "Oryx and Crake." The geneticists' motto could easily be something like "Preservation of [our] species has to be the primary value."

Most people would (or should) be horrified by the world "Oryx and Crake" and its sequel describe. The books indirectly draw attention to the fact that climate change threatens much more than mere biological survival. What's at stake is the survival of human values. Increasingly those values are no longer tribal or national but global, at least in theory. Science has flourished in the age of reason, but that age was a long time coming, and its persistence is by no means assured, even in the short term. Science is inextricably entwined with civilization and democracy, and all the rights and responsibilities they entail. The ethical assertions of equality and universality at the core of the American and French revolutions sustain science just as much as the humanities. Science sinks or swims with civil society. In Margaret Atwood's nightmare, science is doomed.

By mitigating climate change, we're trying to save not merely people's DNA, but their culture, which paradoxically is also the source of climate change. We're trying to save not just literacy, tolerance, and reasoned debate, but also art, music, and all the less obvious cultural artifacts that make life worth living. This is what makes the problem of climate change so intractable. It's not enough to just reduce CO2. The challenge is to reduce CO2 humanely, preserving not only the oceans and forests but also the fragile traditions of increasing civil rights and intellectual freedom within which science and so much else have evolved. We're more likely to succeed if we're clear about the goal.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


In response to Edward Greisch @ 147, commenting on previous Hubble post on [list of sociobiology texts omitted]:

"Science will solve ethics. But we don’t have ethical equations yet."

Somehow I don't find this reassuring.

"Preservation of your own species has to be the primary value."

Substitute race for species and this statement sets off deadly alarms. You may not like the transposition, but people have made it in the past and will continue to do so. In every case I'm aware of when the value of human existence has been defined in biological terms, the results have been spectacularly awful.

Forcible sterilization was official policy in the United States well into the 1960s. Margaret Sanger is famous as the founder of Planned Parenthood, but she was also a committed eugenicist, and her ideas were considered normal at the time. Nazi war criminals claimed with some justification that their racial purification laws were inspired by American eugenics. The Wikipedia article on sociobiology includes a delightful photo demonstrating the resurrection of Eugenics Quarterly as Social Biology in 1969.

What makes humans special is that we aren't limited only to biologically determined values. For better or worse people have developed cultures, and eventually civilizations, which completely redefine our relationship to each other and to non-humans. Civilized people are not motivated primarily by a desire to ensure the dominance of their genetic traits. This was as true of the ancient Romans as it is of us. Most of what modern humans do is useless or visibly counterproductive from a strictly biological point of view. Climate change is an apt example: it's simply an unintended consequence of our feverish cultural activity. All around the Mediterranean, entire forests were cut down to make ships, floors, furniture, lutes, picture frames and countless other biologically indifferent but culturally essential artifacts. Much of the area became permanently arid as a result, but this was the price we paid for the Renaissance and subsequent steps toward the global civilization on which our current discussion depends.

For humans, value has to be culturally defined or we become apes. When human beings are reduced to animals or considered only in terms of their biological attributes, rather than viewed as individuals with intrinsic rights, the way is cleared to fascism, as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School rightly insisted after WWII. If the choice is between humans surviving by sacrificing their humanity, and humans not surviving at all, there's no choice: it can only be the latter, because people won't tolerate the former for long.


According to Gallup, "Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Apparently the respondents didn't study much paleontology.

Many people seem to be unwilling to face the consequences of Stephen Jay Gould's work. Evolution doesn't converge on us, or anything else. There's no top or bottom, no good or bad, just a seemingly endless parade of organisms more or less fit for ever-changing conditions. If we make earth an unsuitable environment for ourselves, we and many other organisms will suffer more, and go extinct sooner than we otherwise might have, but slime will inherit earth regardless. This is just one of the many disturbing truths science reveals to humanity. I'm capable of facing it, so others must be capable of facing it too. Facing the pointlessness of existence squarely should be taken as a sign of mental health. What psychological distress I do experience is mostly due to being surrounded by deluded people who believe they're going to heaven. I wish they would hurry up and leave.

The pictures from the Hubble telescope are clear enough. There's no meaning to be found out there. Meaning can only be constructed socially, and this implies cooperation. People could conceivably construct a meaning for themselves that allowed them to coexist in a reasonably steady state over a long period of geologic time. But is there any reason to believe this is likely? What precedents do we have? Ants normally exhibit extraordinary cooperation and altruism, but they also periodically fight wars of extermination, even against colonies of their own species. Aboriginal societies were sometimes stable compared to modern civilization, but only at vastly lower population densities.

The hard problems are all ethical, not scientific. Why should people embrace disturbing truths instead of convenient fictions? Why shouldn't the rich live soft lives and be waited on hand and foot if they can get away with it? Why shouldn't the ruling class use force to take whatever it wants? Why should people make sacrifices for the benefit of future generations? Why should individual humans care what happens after they're dead?

These and similar questions were seriously considered in the wake of WWII. There was some consensus in the West that people needed to be pacified and weaned away from nationalism. At the time, socializing people to embrace individualism and consumerism seemed a logical alternative to repeating WWII with hydrogen weapons. Very few were concerned about the consequences of further industrialization. Pollution wasn't seriously addressed for decades. Climate change was almost totally unanticipated. In the 1950s if you'd told Americans that they shouldn't build suburbs because automobiles would accelerate climate change, they would have given you a lobotomy.

We're caught in a cascade of side effects, and increasingly our reality is spinning out of control. Older people wish for a reversal, back to the relatively pristine conditions they enjoyed in their youth, but this is pure fantasy. Even if we stopped producing CO2 today, the warming and sea level rise already in the pipeline are enough to ensure drastic physical and social changes. On our current course we're facing chaos and disruption on the scale of WWII or worse, something most people alive today can scarcely imagine.

Genetics sheds much light on cancer, but it doesn't seem to cure people of believing that the only possible solution to their problems is unlimited growth. I wish more people would watch Albert Bartlett's famous lecture, "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
-Albert Bartlett


When I said that the hard problems are ethical, I didn't mean to belittle the difficulties faced by scientists. What I meant is that ethical problems aren't necessarily solvable in the scientific sense of the word. Ethical assertions are social constructions and don't have to be rooted in objective reality at all. For example the U.S. Supreme Court can assert that corporations should have the same rights as people, and there's no easy way to refute it, because it's just a reflection of our society's current power structure. Imagine how different it would be if the same court asserted that ten is a prime number, or that the moon is made of cheese. Many ethical assertions are similarly absurd, but since they're normalized by the culture in which they occur, the absurdities are hard to see except in retrospect. White man's burden may be transparently offensive now, but it was a respected ethical position throughout the nineteenth century.

Humans could turn out to be great at science but lousy at ethics. This would partly explain why we aren't reacting to climate change quickly enough. Dan Miller's "A Really Inconvenient Truth" makes this same point in an amusing way: 

"Imagine that you read in the newspaper tomorrow... that all the excess CO2 in the world is being released by al-Qaeda. Think about that. Would we react? Of course we would. We would spend any amount of money ... to fight that. We would spend a trillion dollars, which we just did."