we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Our Ecologically Strange Situation: we alone are the progressive inventors of behaving extensions.

I don’t know why I have been avoiding this technical underpinning to the Extremophile Choice hypothesis in this blog. But here it is. Perhaps, for the evo-eco geeks anyway, it will help make better sense of it all.

On the importance of structure vs function from Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice: fifty short essays on what it means to be human in the Natural world.


Intro to PART III: In considering transitions of organs [and thus, by extension, species], it is so important to bear in mind the probability of conversion from one function to another [1][and from the next chapter] Domestic instincts, as they may be called, are certainly far less fixed or invariable than natural instincts; but they have been acted on by far less rigorous selection, and have been transmitted for an incomparably shorter period, under less fixed conditions of life. [2] —Charles Darwin

From Essay 18: ... Darwin postulated that structural change must always follow a functional shift to argue his case that species do in fact evolve: that the natural world changes. [3] Here I want to remind the reader that, implicit in Darwin’s formulation, we have an argument that, when considering the everyday stability of species and ecosystems, it is also “important to bear in mind” that an organ’s “conversion from one function to another” must not happen without an ecologically sound reason. This is achieved during normal times, or under “fixed conditions of life” as Darwin himself put it, by the rigorous selection of natural instincts. [4] So now, when we ask what does it mean to be human in the Natural world, it soon becomes a pivotal issue whether or not natural selection’s everyday priority is to limit behavioural flexibility by pruning out all behaviours that don’t conform to species-normal body structures. For if the answer is yes, then it becomes obvious that technology compels a radical departure from this Natural state of affairs, and this must not be overlooked by holding to a sentimental (and indeed self-serving) Man-As-Part-Of-Nature Environmentalism. After all, ‘oneness’ is not an ecological, but a metaphysical, mental construct; the more we think about oneness, the less we really have to think about, and while this points us in the right direction ‘spiritually’ (though unlike silent practice, it doesn’t act-ually get us there … sorry, get us here), it’s of no use to us whatsoever scientifically. So for the sake of argument, let’s take the acronym for this overly simplified interpretation of Darwin’s message as yesterday’s MAP ONE, which served to direct our intuitive hand to begin the task of species conservation, and now we can use ‘both hands’ to turn to the next page in an updated atlas of human nature.

From Essay 30: … and one day she slipped off the cover and looked in. Forthwith there escaped a multitude of plagues for hapless man—such as gout, rheumatism, and colic for his body, and envy, spite, and revenge for his mind —Bullfinch’s Mythology

With the ‘backdoor gift’ of fire, and the technology that the control of fire fostered and represented, it would eventually become possible for mankind to escape from Nature’s genetic constraints: illnesses like “gout, rheumatism, and colic” would slowly cease to be an immediate and final barrier to procreation, and, in the fullness of time, our Naturally contained predispositions [5] for “envy, spite, and revenge” would find a place within that plethora of ‘justifiable’ attitudes that is humanity. With technology, bodies are no longer structurally limited to the efficient performance of resource-partitioned tasks, and so human nature is no longer constrained by competition with better adapted species. The ecological lid is off, and we are beginning to understand that Evo-Ecology itself is the immortal Intelligence our wily Promethean ancestors offended—an offense punishable by loss of both Natural and human integrity.

Essay 36: The “exo-holographic” part of the acronym [SPEL, meaning: Sono-Pictorial Exo-holographic Language] derives from the fact that the dolphin pictorial language is actually propagated all around the dolphin whenever one or more dolphins in the pod send or receive sono-pictures. John Stuart Reid has found that any small part of the dolphin’s echolocation beam contains all the data needed to recreate the image cymatically in the laboratory [the CymaScope is a device that assembles sono-images] or, he postulates, in the dolphin’s brain. Our new model of dolphin language is one in which dolphins can not only send and receive pictures of objects around them but can create entirely new sono-pictures simply by imagining what they want to communicate. It is perhaps challenging for us as humans to step outside our symbolic thought processes to truly appreciate the dolphin’s world in which, we believe, pictorial rather than symbolic thoughts are king. Our personal biases, beliefs, ideologies, and memories penetrate and encompass all of our communication, including our description and understanding of something devoid of symbols, such as SPEL. Dolphins appear to have leap-frogged human symbolic language and instead have evolved a form of communication outside the human evolutionary path. In a sense we now have a “Rosetta Stone” that will allow us to tap into their world in a way we could not have even conceived just a year ago. The old adage, “a picture speaks a thousand words” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. …  Our research has provided an answer to an age-old question highlighted by Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute, “Are we alone?” We can now unequivocally answer, “no”. SETI’s search for non-human intelligence in outer space has been found [sic] right here on earth in the graceful form of dolphins. —Jack Kassewitz [6]

I have reprinted Kassewitz’s statement here in some length, partly because I want to revisit it in the next section where I will elaborate on the “challenging step” whereby we can better “appreciate the dolphin’s world”—and our above-water human world as well—through a fuller appreciation of the sensorium itself. But also, the complete passage nicely introduces three points I want to make right now about human language and intelligence. That Kassewitz, who is obviously up to “the challenge” (carefully distinguishing between pictorial and symbolic thought in the first place), at the same time casually uses an acronym that labels the “language” of pictorial thought not only symbolic, but perhaps doubly so (if you see SPEL-ling as visually symbolic of spoken words which are themselves symbolic of thought, so this is also a lesson in our mind-hobbling preference for vision and print), is an object lesson in the challenges that even the most sympathetic among us face in our efforts to ‘look’ past our symbols. (You might notice that my acronym for the human ecological strategy, the LAST Niche, actually denotes a non-niche. So perhaps our dubious acronyms just reflect the irresistible pull towards creative image association that we ourselves feel as very playful mammals.) As Kassewitz says:

Our personal biases, beliefs, ideologies, and memories penetrate and encompass all of our communication, including our description and understanding of something devoid of symbols.

My second point is that when we say “we are not alone”, for the simple reason that a dolphin can communicate its inner life, we make too little of the body language coordination we might see even in the lowliest of social animals (I grew up on a farm, and I had to stay alert  at milking time because, when one cow takes a whiz, all nearby cows relieve themselves at once), and, in my view, makes too much of an “exo-holographic” dolphin “imagination” that doesn’t express itself in structural modification. We can only say we’re not alone in this respect if we acknowledge the structurally-creative ‘intelligence’ of an evolving ecosystem.

Finally, “the graceful form of dolphins” is a perfect image to illustrate my argument that eco-evolutionary intelligence operates with a conformity imperative that limits imagination: if the gene-regulated harmony of our oceans had allowed an octopus (who can use tools) to evolve the social intelligence of our gracefully formed dolphin—no hands!—how long would the harmony have lasted? And what if octopuses had developed technology first? Well, Milford Wolpoff’s multiregional hypothesis, pertaining to hominin evolution, tells us that “the potential for niche overlap would have made the co-existence of multiple tool-using species impossible” [7] —no humans! Luckily these handy cephalopods are not only all aquatic, but, perhaps due to their unusual genetic flexibility, they are all specialists with ecologically well-partitioned ‘interests’.

From Essay 49: … If our object is to tell the human story in the context of other species, and if animals in general are organic structures that can ‘behave’, and have evolved from a common pattern of muscles in motion (with many animal skill-sets ‘more evolved’ even than ours in certain directions), then we have to face the consequences of our strange situation: we alone are the progressive inventors of behaving extensions. Darwin’s passing comments on “fixed or invariable … natural instincts” as compared with domesticated instincts, and his abstruse arguments concerning structural vs functional change—of marginal interest in the old paradigm—are very important in this new configuration, for they reveal a generally overlooked ‘conformity imperative’. Natural selection, for a startled geological moment [first pair of finches on the Galapagos Islands for instance], might favour what I have called inapposite curiosity, but if ecosystems must ultimately select for their own stability, then Natural selection won’t favour risky experimentation beyond a certain point; after this point, body-insubordinate behaviour will become a liability. But what if it doesn’t? What if, in a prolonged ‘moment’ [the Pleistocene glacial, inter-glacial, cycling], a new evolutionary story [language-driven progressive technology] has begun? Then this story will cease to have a place in that story, with its Natural resources, and its “fixed or invariable” Natural instincts. …

Notes:

1. Darwin, 1968 [First edition, John Murray 1859]. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: Penguin Books. pp. 220-221.

2. Ibid, p. 115.

3. Ibid, pp. 220-221.

4. Ibid, p. 115.

5. Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books. Many feel that Steven Pinker goes too far in emphasizing the role genes play in controlling our behaviour. But over-emphasis itself seems to be ‘natural’ when we feel the urge to restore balance to a conversation. Is this a specific genetic trait? Or is it just ‘descended from’ our survival instinct—in Pinker’s case, and probably mine, a need to make a living selling books? Anyway, it has been my experience, as a mindfulness practitioner, that we become less defensive about our capacity to modify both innate and conditioned behaviours, when we begin to see, in a non-judgemental way, just how autonomous they really are. A strong emphasis in my book is how human insight allows for the ‘evolution’ of human nature beyond its animal roots.

6. Jack Kassewitz. “We Are Not Alone: The Discovery of Dolphin Language.” www.speakdolphin.com —November 2011. (Jack Kassewitz: speakdolphin@mac.com)

7. Thorne, A.G., Wolpoff, M.H. “The multiregional evolution of humans”. Scientific American, vol. 266, no. 4, pp. 76–83. Milford H. Wolpoff, Alan Thorne and Xinzhi Wu proposed the Multiregional hypothesis in 1984, claiming that for the last two million years the various forms of hominins essentially represented a single, if loosely integrated, genepool with wide clinal variations. This does not necessarily mean that the widely accepted “out of Africa” theory is wrong, in the sense that a central maternal line of descent cannot be identified, but the proposition is rather that, because of the high degree of niche overlap allowed by technological exchange, the many populations could not have survived unless they interbred—at least enough to deny them the term “extinction” that would inevitably apply to distinct species that succumbed to this unrestrained competition. Perhaps the best evidence in favour of the hypothesis however, and certainly for the argument I want to make here about our current situation, is not found in the fossil record, but it is the simple observation that humanity today, in all its potential for adaptive radiation, shows no signs of further speciation: human kind is demonstrably a “melting pot”, and this is profoundly unlike any “natural species”.

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