on humanism and environmental crisis

Invention of things

So many puzzles, one key.

Here are some examples of puzzles:

  1. The anthropic dilemma or fine-tuning. 
  2. What happened before the Big Bang? Or how Entropy 0 can change to non-0?
  3. Why did we not find any evidence of aliens?
  4. Where is the center of the Universe?
  5. Why are homo sapiens so much more complex than other animals?
  6. What was crucial in the human evolutionary leap?
  7. What was the evolutionary origin of human language?
  8. What was an evolutionary origin of materialism?
  9. What is the solution to our niche crisis?

The key: the event which occurred over a relatively short evolutionary time- probably several thousands of years, about 50,000 years ago in Africa or the Middle East. It involved one or at the most a couple of groups of ancient humans. 

     To continue the explanation or the description of the hypothesis- the key- we need to stop and insert an explanation. An explanation for the explanation? Yes, this sentence might need to be moved to the beginning of the essay, definitely can not be postponed. The explanation involves bootstrapping. ( A la Baron Munchausen) Explaining the working of the human brain with the human brain. Explaining the nature of reality using the language created by this reality. Explaining the complexity of the system using tools created within this system. It is why our explanation doesn’t explain what really happened, but how we continue to improve our explaining it. The best and the only thing we can do- is bootstrapping. It is obvious then that the nature of things reflects (or follows) the nature of our probing system. Mainly our brains but also other experimenting or probing machines. The results of probing depend and reflect the structure of the probe. 

       Another metaphor can be helpful: You look and you realize that the fur gloves you have worn for a long time are actually inside out. So, you flip it, put it on and it obviously works much better. The cold hand’s problem is solved. No repair, no surgery, no expense, just a fresh look- so simple, and the result is incredible.

     Now, back to the cavemen.  Well, the event I am going to describe carries similarities to several older events. We see these events as a cluster of extremely unlikely circumstances that occurred only once (an event can not be rarer than that). Like: Big Bang, creating solar/’planetary/earth system, creating life from no life systems, creating a nervous system to support nonrandom behavior, creating big brain social mammals in post dinosaurs niche. 

We also see our lives similarly- the nodes of unlike events and circumstances. I hypothesize that our brain creates in developing neural networks an important (nodal) but uncommon structure (few axons or dendrites) reflecting the structure of these outside- (niche) events. Or, if you reverse this concept, outside events reflect neural structures. ( the “glove hypothesis”- the glove corresponds to perceived reality, the brain is the hand inside the glove).

     Now, really back to cavemen. The unlikely cluster of events occurred circa 50,000 years ago. The horde which became our ancestors was migrating north under the pressure of bigger and stronger hominids. 

They had to outsmart them: by the level of cooperation and sophistication of communication. In migration, the children in the band were few and exceptionally precious. Many members took care of them, communication, talking back and forth was more intense, more social, and prolonged. Toddlers who started to talk were still being talked to and nolens volens listened to. Toddlers naturally: 1 ask questions, 2. ask for names of things. 

      Until then the communication had a lot of characteristics of animal communication.  When I read about the evolutionary origins of language, invariably linguists make it extremely complicated and jargon -saturated and missing evolutionary mechanisms. Communication is what the nervous system does, it was created to enable organisms to develop nonrandom behavior. So information from outside the system can benefit the system. This actually defines and creates “outside and inside”. The cells have their internal communication system, then when cells become “social” and create multicellular organisms- it opens new “outside”, and at last, when organisms become social- the concept of outside moves up to another level. The information which does not benefit the system- does not survive, the things it describes – do not exist. So the content of information is always the same: the descriptions of beneficial behaviors. You manage to remember it, you live, you manage to inherit it- your species niche expands. In archaic bacteria, it would be “move towards higher sugar concentration”, In bees- a dance directing other bees to flowers- in chimps- the details of organizing a rebellion against an alpha male. These descriptions might contain communications full of actions, places, objects, and animals but it is not language. They might contain stories, memories, emotions, and logical decisions but it is not language. Or, you may call it proto-language. Because of the crucial difference between that and human communication is really not linguistic. It’s ontological. These animals and early humans have the concept of reality described by Jacob Uexkull as Umwelt.  Their brains are full of beneficial behaviors. Nothing else. And beneficial behavior expands the species’ niche- usually but not always improving organisms’ survival and reproduction. It is impossible to manipulate this type of reality, the more complicated behaviors the more unwieldy it is to use them in different situations. The learning is painfully slow. Hominids hit the evolutionary wall, over the last 5 or 10 millions of years, they all died.

      Then, the miracle happened. The cluster of unlikely circumstances and events occurred. 

       The 15-month-old cave girl said: “daaaa’’ and pointed at the apple. ( She meant “ what is that, sis”?) It’s called “joined attention” . Her older sister answered: “an apple”. The older sister pulled the apple from the description of behavior- about how we find apples, which are good to eat, etc, etc. Then she stuck this apple into a brand new thing – reality. It was very small, beginning, just between the toddler and big sister, but they could manipulate it easier- “two apples, big apples, red apples” the endless uses of the THING. ( Notice that she mixed domains-or dimensions- the trick very often used with inventions, like a steam engine, gravity or double helix ) Paradoxically the reality which was starting to be socially shared opened the door for individuality. Budding modularity made recursive speech possible. In the Umwelt world, it was only me with my niche. 

      But now, or with a generation or two, with the invention of things, it was so easy, soon the whole family used more and more names, not as a part of the description of behaviors, but as building blocks of intergroup reality. Now the same story could be told in so many ways. How many fish do we need? Well, how many are coming for dinner?  You could talk about the quality of things and the quantity of things- the birth of abstraction and mathematics. And, after you talked about things- next big step- you could own them. And lack them.

     It probably took generations to populate the budding joint reality of the group with things. But modularity, later known as grammar, and recursiveness were the keys.

Now, an easy part, the puzzles.

  1. The anthropic dilemma or fine-tuning. It is true that many facts in the history of the cosmos, origins of Earth, and life on Earth are incredibly rare and improbable. The same can be said about evolutionary facts leading to modern humans. But if you examine the events leading to the creation of Saturn rings, or penguins, or squirrels, these are also incredibly rare and improbable. The measuring and exploring and assigning of probability occur within the same system. Chinese medicine does not see any brain- the probing and the result operate within the same system.

       2. What happened before Big Bang? Or how Entropy 0 can change to non-0?

Again, the time concept and Big Bang belong to the same system. The Universe began with Big Bang – they are all human-made concepts and if something was before we would not call it the beginning. Entropy occurs in time, and when there is time, there is non 0 Entropy. The time is defined by change, with change the order has to be imperfect -sooner or later.

       3. Why did we not find any evidence of aliens?

Aliens with gods and unicorns belong to human stories, as does the rest of the Universe. So, they do exist, inside our culture, like forest, fear, and Finland. And there is nothing outside, they are real inside this mind-boggling reality.

       4. Where is the center of the Universe?

The reality and the Universe were built during the evolutionary development of the nervous system. Every living organism has its center of reality inside the organism (well, how about ants or bees, do they share it??). Humans are an exception. They developed, starting about 50,000 years ago, shared reality. Their stories, which by and by become myths and then split into religions and science contained the notions of the center of the Universe, but ultimately these concepts and constructs are related to human intelligence. As long as we stay here on Earth, even if our science or religion points into a special part of heaven, I would assign the center to the person who points there, wouldn’t you?

       5. Why are homo sapiens so much more complex than other animals?

We invented things, language, and the Universe and it makes learning exponentially easier.

        6. What was crucial in the human evolutionary leap?

The invention of things and abstract thinking ca. 50,000 years ago.

        7. What was the evolutionary origin of human language?

Intragroup reality switch- from social and emotional sharing to language sharing to reality sharing to language modularity.

       8. What was an evolutionary origin of materialism?

The events described above, it is what made us modern humans and now it can kill us.

       9. What is the solution to our niche crisis?

Use an understanding of the evolutionary past to expand our niche by building a society based on experiential happiness. If we continue to try to be happy with material things we’ll run out of them and die out ( see details in the previous posts- esp. “niche crisis II”).

   

       

Be the best?

Be the best?

 

Because of the niche crisis, I am thinking and writing a lot about materialism, its origin, and its effect on humanity.

 

I am obsessed with the notion that shifting dimensions is something very important in our thinking. Nolens volens American democrats (and I as one of them) were forced to do just that. 

From climate and health care suddenly COVID pandemic was all-important: and now- race.

The ability to shift dimensions is crucial for wise judgment. It is an element of critical thinking, there is no creativity without shifting dimensions. To do it you use imagination, historical, and global perspective. 

 In racism a doctrine selects a group of people, declares them inferior and then other people can use it for brutal advantage, sometimes for generations and generations. And a systemic injustice can persist because the critical thinking, shifting dimension, and perspective are so rare. 

  It is also difficult, requiring effort and training. 

And here the materialism comes back like an old stew. Living and thinking in the world of things offer incredible advantages. Modern school with an emphasis on technology and science is famously one dimensional. Auto mechanics and computer technology don’t require fluency in classical Greek. Actually, it is difficult to think where would you use this skill- still standard in European high school 100 years ago.

One dimensional thinking gives quick and high profit while fosters consumerism and inequality and racism. And it is a hallmark of free-market capitalism- profit is everything.

Fortunately, it is not in our genes, it started only 50, 000 years ago. Like poor people are not stupid- only taught to be poor for several generations, the same – CEOs and financial sharks are not bad and greedy- only taught for several generations to be the best you can be- measured by one dimension- your account. Neither group is happy- so the reversal is possible but it would take one or two generations. If we start now.

What is an alternative to materialism?

Evolutionary, before the invention of material culture and the language of material things- whichever came first- the world of primitive hominids, like animals, was populated with the more or less sophisticated descriptions of behaviors. Now, with our prodigious brains, we call it experiences. We can not completely eliminate material culture, but we can create a world where experiences are valued high and they, not things define the richness and qualities of our lives.

If you share a pie the more you take, the less is left for others. It is where we are. But if you share a beautiful sunset, the more you share, the richer and more fantastic is the experience. It is where we need to be. The experience, unlike the gadget you owe, depends on your input, your relationship you are in, your mood, your knowledge, and your imagination. It makes it difficult but it makes you really happy, content and peaceful. Makes your life examined and your children smiling. It is when you are the best- the quality of experience determines it.

 

And one more thing. It is sustainable, the switch would give us a glimmer of a chance of survival as a species.

Because our share of the pie is dwindling and it will continue to.

I know, we need a whole new conversation, the measuring system, a new language, institutions, and industries…the parents teaching love and relationships, the schools teaching critical thinking and multidimensional thinking. Teaching art, poetry music, and literature.

And who will do it, where is this broad coalition of courageous and hopeful people?

Same horde of cavemen 2

The same horde of cavemen 2

 

This essay describes the origin of materialism.

This is interesting but to talk about it we need to make two pretty bold assumptions.

  1. In the evolutionary past, our ancestors were not materialistic- otherwise, we couldn’t talk about “the origin”. Even with the notions that “there is a jungle out there” and “survival of the fittest” the animals do not have the concept of ownership or greed. Their world is the world of behaviors not the world of things. The deeper back we look, this becomes more and more obvious. But it is also true for higher animals and true for early humans and for hunter-gatherers. We shared what we’d got, “feast or famine”, there was nothing to keep.

  2. We have to think about what type of event or change, in which domain, can be a candidate for the ‘trigger”. The brain scientists and paleontologists agree that there must have been a huge leap in development. Many agree that the language made the crucial difference. Other candidates are better tools, extra rich food, and the time to rest and chat, and walking on two feet (bipedality). To me, the history of humanity shows that we usually progress by the change in the mind and then the environment changes accordingly.

         Now, I have no evidence that my hypothesis is true, but it agrees with everything I know about linguistics, child development, early human history, and evolution.

         So, the time is about 50,000 years ago.

In Africa, the hominid experiment continues, over the last 2- 3 million years there were several subspecies of homo- some branches died out in  Africa, some migrated all over the world but eventually all of them (neanderthal and Denisovan will go soon) died out.

       A small group of survivors, the smartest and more fiercely cooperating than other groups are facing more challenges, after Mnt. Tuba eruption  (~66,000 years ago) it is dark, people are hungry and cold. But at the same time, their tools are getting better and they communicate better and better. They slowly migrate north pushed out by bigger and stronger and multiplying faster more primitive hominids. Their number is dwindling, will they reach salmon-rich Mediterranean rivers in time?

       Their babies are few, migration takes a toll on mothers and babies. The whole group takes care of them, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, even brothers, and uncles. Prosocial babies get the best care, they smile, bubble, and play. It is so much to learn now, even in the second year of life they require a lot of care, they spend a lot (comparing to the past and to other groups), a lot of time with adults.

       Their language, even being more rich and sophisticated than other groups, still has a lot of characteristics of animal communications. Remember- the animal brain is created for one sole purpose: to communicate- between sensory and muscles first ( lizard brain), then we add the neurotransmitters and old nuclei ( mammals), then here and there the social systems evolve -and the communications “spillover” to the other organisms of the community. But the content of these communications ( thus the content of the brains) is still the same back to the bacteria: helping organisms make nonrandom choices- that’s it. The brains are the “libraries” of THE DESCRIPTIONS OF USEFUL BEHAVIORS. Other fluff will not get inherited, the competition is tough, the brain tissue is a very, very costly luxury.

In the higher, so-called “eusocial” societies these descriptions can be amazing- bee dance, birds’ astral navigation, chimps coalition forming, elephant’s memories, parrots discussing future menus. But their nature is still the same – all brains have the same functional structure- even if the content is hugely different.

       This creates a “perfect storm scenario”. Suddenly, a little 18-month-old cave-girl comes up to her father, points to the apple, and asks: “What’s that, Daddy?” She asked for the NAME!. The apple’s link to the description of the behavior has been severed, carved out. Better than any deity, from nothing she created something- the thing. As a pediatrician I know little kids well, they are smart, they know emotions, family, their likes, and their needs. They play, they vie for adult attention and they name things. And if an adult listened- suddenly the apple exists separately from eating. (Actually “eating” doesn’t exist per se?). There is no looking back!  The advantages of things! Unlike “eating”-you can have 2 or 4 apples, bigger and smaller, more or less ripe- they do exist. Suddenly your mind manipulates the things around you with ease- like new toys or juggling new skills. From now- on.

The materialism or “The Universe of Things” over the next millennia opened the door for technology, economy, power, and violence. I guess our horde of cavemen made it to the Mediterranean…

Post scriptum: Over the time their language acquired also other important elements ( named much, much later):

     – the concept of reality- the things- what you touch, smell and kick- are steady, unchangeable, real,  while the rest – not so.

      – the concept of “I, you”, and people versus the rest of the Universe, (hence the grammar- my nemesis.)- future “self” or ”soul” or “consciousness”.

      – the concept of Unknown- “figuring things out“ will remain the human’s hallmark of his modus operandi, his pride, joy, awe, and fear. This will be future Religion, Philosophy, and Science.

Post post scriptum : How about “story”? The story is all it is. Much older than things, as old as art, as joy and pain. (also in human development- it is “older-” 4-month-old does peek-a-boo!)

 

Same horde of cavemen

 Listen, friends,

I do not want to spoil your afternoon but if we don’t do something dramatic soon, our grandchildren will live in misery and many of them will die. We have 40 years or so to do it.

The ecological catastrophe is like a Monster with 100 heads and we are not even cutting these heads. We are nibbling on the tail and this is no good. 

I believe there is the chink in the Monster’s armor. A vulnerable place awaiting the arrow of the hero. 

         The trick is simple. We are almost 8 billion strong hurtling towards a disaster, but each of us is the same human. Same genes, instincts, pleasures, and pains. Same brain structures, same neurotransmitters, and hormones. Just 50, 000 years ago we were an almost extinct horde of cavemen. And now we KNOW THIS, we SEE THAT. we can imagine and understand that the proper action can save us again. It is just the same horde (or community)- so what if it looks like 8 billion strong mad crowds that are high on power, violent, reckless, and…stupid. The solution is inside each of us. Each of us wants to be happy. No exceptions. The way we try to get this happiness has been changing with cultures and civilizations but it seems that until quite recently it was stable, and lo and behold, safe for the planet. We were happy, embarrassingly, in the similar way the animals are, just a little bit fancier. It was all about a good experience- satiety, relationships, safety, awe, beauty, and art. Only just about 20 or 40 thousand years ago we slowly developed “the kingdom of things”. We dig out coal and oil and ore, we got energy, technology, and gadgets. Things are seemingly irresistible, they please all senses, they are reliable( your car will be there and ready tomorrow – your woman might not be)- easy, easy, so easy to get happy and powerful and safe, especially after all these thousands of years of fear, uncertainty, relying for happiness on OTHERS! Oh, the misery of relying on these tiny, fleeting moments of understanding, awe, and fun. 

         But we can make this pivot, we can make this second Renaissance smarter, more robust, the experiences with technology can be more “things-like”.

There is no other way anyway. 

And if we do it later when the resources are gone, we are overcrowded and fearful, then this “old happiness” practiced with the blade on our throats might look more like a caricature of the good stuff.

I think we need to create a broad coalition across professions, nations, and many other “huge” differences, and smarter people than me need to lead and design the details and actions.

I welcome brainstorming on my blog ecohumanistlab.com  and I will post more practical elements. of how to call it- a dream? plan? movement?  I think that the parenting of infants and toddlers would be easiest to address.

 

Part 2

Materialists and Idealists

 

In the first part of this essay, I made some bold hypotheses and ended up with outrageous promises.

I will repeat then: The niche crisis is in itself not a problem, it is just an inevitable result. Therefore to handle it we have to find the cause. I think that the cause, broadly speaking, is the domination of things of our civilization. (The pollution-related to cars, trucks, and roads is not the problem, it’s the result, the problem is that we LOVE to drive, LOVE the power and feeling related to moving a big machine fast. The problem is not outside the culture but inside the culture) It started, I think, and I will talk about it later, from peculiar language development and now it is literally killing us. We can correct this, but in order to do that we need to start with the conversation, maybe even create a new language, a new set of metaphors and mythology. This is part 2. 

Part 3 will start the conversation about the promises of the new beautiful world.

I thought that this domination of things had to do with the eternal distinction between materialists and idealists. 

I checked a few philosophy texts, some psychology sources, and of course: Google. It all left me befuddled. Nothing fitted the bill. 

  1. The philosophy was as always useless; neither early materialists like Democritus and Thales, or late like Marx and Engels were really materialistic, nor idealists like Berkeley or Hegel had anything to do with the niche. The primordial sin of our civilization must be somewhere else. 
  2. If it was a sin, maybe the religions would do the trick? Oh, I don’t mean the trick they do with humanity for the last 50 000 years. I mean the elusive distinction of believers vs nonbelievers – often understood as idealists vs materialists. But, no, all of them, fundamentalists, mystics, atheists, humanists, all of them want to be good and all are greedy and all want their kids to be successful.
  3. Big psychology- Myer-Briggs tests and others- and folk psychology tell me: materialists are bad (that’s for sure) and unhappy.

-they give babies coca-cola instead of milk.

-they murder to steal money or a nice jacket or even sneakers.

-their science is wrong: Newtonian, solid brick and mortar, not relativity and “observer’s Universe”.

– they are responsible for technology, corporations, gadgets, and consumerism.

-among the believers, the materialists are the worst: young Earth, literal interpretation of scriptures,  seeing beliefs as real and factual, sacred rights, holy wars, and xenophobia.

So, idealists must be good: they live frugally, don’t eat meat, like theater and poetry, hiking, nature, meditation, praying, and dancing.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Oprah and Albert Schweizer, etc, etc. We need to be like them, but we can’t.  Why? All of these famous idealists were driven, obsessed by humongous overwhelming ideas, usually not very happy, crazy overachievers, rather miserable “I will show them” people. 

We are all good normal people and we cannot be like them, well, do we actually want our children to be like them?

The research shows that typical materialists and famous rich materialists were not so happy and if they were happy it was the idealist part of them which did it.  Like philanthropy of Rockefeller and Gates. And making material achievements a priority in life actually make self-expression and good relationships more difficult. It looks that it is not switching from materialist to idealist that is necessary- it would be impossible anyway.

So, we want our children (and ourselves) to be happy first. Then we have to find a way to be happy without hurting the planet.

These distinctions require thinking. Thinking and discussions and role-modeling. What is necessary and doable is noticing how indoctrinated we are by generations of automatic concepts of success, the meaning of life, and happiness. Things: a well-paying job, a good house, a fast car, and a pretty woman. It is a very one-sided picture of the American Dream, which is actually a dream of most of the people in the world.

If we explain to people that this dream is untenable, that the planet can not support it, that we have to give it up, to sacrifice our dream for the planet, and for others …. We’ll go nowhere. Tell the leaders, CEOs, generals, and clergy to relinquish the power to save the planet… we’ll go nowhere. Tell economist that capitalism needs to pivot and production of things and energy has to shrink and …we’ll go nowhere. 

What can we do? Dealing with things is so easy, the numbers are on their side.

Dealing with ideas, relationships, Unknown, feelings, even art, and literature – all require and benefit from critical thinking, shifting dimensions, using imagination ( some people talk about transformational education). Dealing with things do not… Things are: cheaper or more expensive, hotter or cooler, slower or faster – so easy to deal with, so inviting for the categories, divisions and … ownership. And it is literally how the hell broke loose.

And how did we get like that?  The evolution of the nervous systems and ethology will help here. Animals are not materialists, their brains are full of behaviors ( in the notebook of the observer, like Jane Goodall watching her chimpanzees), for them (say, chimpanzees) they are the experiences. The trick is to avoid bad experiences like pain, hunger, or fear and maximize good experiences- satiation, control, safety even belonging. Not much different than early humans. Hominids, also hunter-gatherers, lived in more or less egalitarian societies, where the leader, usually male, possessed very little, except for mates. 

     In our search for the origins of this worldview dysfunction or of materialism, I’d like to point to the two moments that were pivotal.  50 to 10 thousand years ago communication became a language. Animals and hominid’s “language” followed their world of experiences. It described behaviors (experiences), even sometimes complex ones like bees dance, crows teaching their children about bad people and butterflies astral navigation, but they were still behaviors. And then, at the toddler stage of our civilization, something happened to humans. And to humans only: see the interesting hypothesis of Dr.Hrdy (among others). I said “toddler” because, as a pediatrician, I observed the same magic hundreds and hundreds of times in the office and you might have seen it in your home. A 15-month-old human infant is a pretty complex being. She can talk a little, but she understands a lot, she knows her surroundings, she even mastered the skill called “object permanence”. She knows pretty much how the world around works, what is anger and fear and sadness, hunger, and the bliss of cuddling with mom. But, your dog or even a crow in your yard can do all of these. And then, out of blue, your child will point to the pineapple on the table: “What’s that, Daddy?”

And an abyss opened, a huge difference between humanity and all known sentient and artificial beings. Only humans can ask for the name of an object not related to any function or behavior.

 

    What was first, naming objects or materialistic society? I don’t know, but what is important is that it happened recently, so materialism is not in our genes ( neither are things, really, and their objectivity is perfectly questionable!) 

It is also possible that the” invention of things “ timing is not mere coincidence. Because it is the time ( 50 to 20 000 years ago, when we almost got extinct- about 10 thousand people left, or less!) when our egalitarian society could have changed. Maybe it was the pressure of a shrinking niche related to climate change, after the Toba volcano eruption and ice age. We behaved (we actually were) like cornered animals, we tried to survive against each other. With the rule of violence, fear, and anxiety our worldviews changed. We tried to get happy with things, so we learned to get high on power, violence, and control.  Interestingly, more or less at the same time we developed societies with haves and have nots, (Mesopotamia, Egypt, China), and having was better, and the things to have to be on the top were, well, things.

Our primordial “personality” stays dormant, waiting to be awakened… We need another renaissance chapter in our civilization. With our technology and advances in knowledge of the human mind, we can make a better renaissance than the original Italian One. A mixture of materialism, idealism, humanism, and all that is needed to take care of this planet. We can do it, but it will take the new conversation on being authentic, working on one’s personal unique worldview and on creating unique, personal mythology. James P. Carse in the “The religious case against belief” argues for this conversation, for questioning. It is what the real religious people (read: happy, authentic, mature) do – question belief, use the paradigm and language of their religion just for one, but all-important purpose – to question the world, to embrace the Mystery. To find the meaning, the worldview, the happiness. Well, not to find, to journey on finding it.

It is going to be a renaissance – the rebirth of the type of mind which made us human. We have it inside: the excitement and awe of the Unknown, the curiosity, joy, and imagination. Loving, playing, arguing, making fun and derision, showing others, and ourselves’ foolishness.  We’ll thrive on experiences instead of gadgets- we’ll treat them as assets, cherish them, and make them richer and richer as our complexity and intelligence grow.

This optimistic story does not need to be true. It would be reassuring and promising.  And I am asking for so little. Just start talking, open your mind, and imagine. Well, we are not completely off the hook- this new plan includes role-modeling, right? Somebody has to change first or at least start changing.  This conversation, this work will lead to a new curriculum, more on that unknown black hole in Part 3.

Niche crisis II

The initial version published in December 2019, this is a new, expanded form.

 

 

Niche crisis or environmental crisis.

 Part 1. The Hypothesis and the chance.

I am convinced that the niche crisis is caused by a particular cognitive development at the dawn of our civilization. This early achievement turned out now to be our biggest problem. 

“Niche crisis“ is an unusual term so let me explain.

When we look at our world we see our environment. This term for me contains some cloaked feeling of entitlement, may even sound congratulatory. It doesn’t have a biology or cosmology sense. To me, it answers the question your good friend may ask over the beer: “how is life?” You tell him about our environment- not ideal, but our- loud music, stupid people, polluted air, etc, etc, And you wouldn’t answer: “Well, I am just becoming extinct”. 

If we want to talk about the crisis the ecologists would use the term “ecological niche” or simply “niche”. When we look at any species from outside the system, as an observer, that species has its niche – the resources, climate, food, other members of the species, predators, anything that influences its evolutionary fitness. Niche is species-specific- it describes the dynamic situation – niche’s strength- that any given species exists in at any given point in time. Not habitat, not ecology, not environment. It is why I prefer the term “niche crisis”. We will really need this “observer view” as we go along. Homo sapiens is the last surviving of six other hominids. The one that almost went extinct several times, the last only about 50 000 years ago ( if you forget the brink of the nuclear war in 1962). 

When the ship is sinking and there is water coming in we send a crew to pump the water out. The more the water is pouring in, the more bailing is needed, right? Obviously, no. We need to find the hole in the hull, repair it and it is how we save the ship and ourselves.

I believe that the ship is sinking and we are busy at the pumps.

 

And our niche, which pretty well fits geographically Planet Earth, is getting weaker again. Even if population growth is slowing down- “only” 9 billion by 2050, the number of people pulled out of poverty/subsistence life into the “consumer’s circle” is growing rapidly and I hope will continue to grow. So, the resources like clean air, diverse forests, clean water, good soil, fish, and plankton-rich oceans are dwindling, especially for these new, vulnerable consumers. And the just feeling of injustice and social conflicts fostered by our wonderful internet (people call it , I guess as a joke, – “global brain”) gets worse.

The ship is sinking, for sure, even if some of my gloomy images might be controversial, but not all of them, for goodness sake. And please don’t tell me “there is always a crisis” or about the Chinese-like “great wheel of history” or “nothing new under the sun” – or as Trump reacted to coronavirus: “ it’s nothing, just a virus, can’t see it”. I see millions and millions of good, smart, young people, who are “at the pumps”. Recycling, electric cars, solar panels, not eating meat, planting trees, all these are heartwarming.

     Let’s keep bailing, as a compromise, to feel good and keep the troop’s morale high, but we have to find and repair the hole. Find the cause of the crisis while trying to slow down the disastrous results

           Every species survives by expanding its niche. More food sources, more diverse habitats that the organisms can adapt to means more sex and more babies. The survival of the fittest works on the individual organisms’ and it’s family’s level, but only the sum of these changes determines the strength of the species’ niche. 

The ecological niche is all about the flow of energy which ultimately comes from the Sun. The stronger the niche the more energy the species absorbs and utilizes. The complexity increases creating stronger bodies, brains, and stronger social life. You noticed very “broad strokes”, I’m not explaining those mechanisms, just sketching them, but the only difference when we talk about the human’s niche is that the complexity is called the culture or civilization and the animal’s urge to survive and to mate is called the pursuit of happiness.

 

      And this is our ticket. We have to strengthen our niche otherwise we’ll become extinct. Our ticket is our culture- we are conscious, thinking, observing our own demise. 

So, what is this cognitive achievement turned out to be a problem? It happened gradually between 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. The primitive communication grew into language. The description of behaviors became the description of reality, including the distinct material world. I will discuss this evolutionary process in detail in part 2. The new reality opened the world of things, of technology. The worldviews and the meaning of life changed. Now we have more shopping malls, more hotels, more toys and gadget factories, more airports and bombers. The image is of emotional regression – a bully sucking his thumb. To understand the situation we need to keep shifting the dimensions: from society to personal and back. We need to see that our civilization is the sum of millions of lives, their successes and failures, their loves and hatreds. We keep trying to be satisfied or happy or just less anxious (whatever is the thing we want!) by consuming the planet’s dwindling resources. Imagine that within the next ten years flying electric taxis will become very popular. In the language of cultural evolution, this means complexity and ability to adapt.

Until recently, such an invention would increase the strength of the human’s niche. Not anymore: more passengers, airports, parkings, services, businesses, more technology, more rat race, violence, and poverty. We have to pivot and we can do it. The thing we get from technology, call it happiness, call it power or security we have to learn to get from sustainable experiences. We can learn and teach it to our children- this is a matter of a new curriculum and of a new generation.

How can we do it? 

In the book “About time” Adam Frank describes how the evolution of humanity’s relation to time changed the world. This sense of time changed slowly over millennia. We learned and followed how time-related technology changed people’s minds and people’s minds created technology. It is how this civilization works: we see progress outside,- the same “progress” sits inside everyone’s brain, what each person knows, different depending on education, experience, and interests- and this builds the third, elusive“progress” that exists as a conversation (Werner Erhard’s jargon),  as Carl Jung’s our “collective unconscious” or simply as “culture”. This third “progress” is the one that creates our language, metaphors, and our mythology. 

Now we can, paradoxically, use technology against the technology abusing the Planet. With the new global conversation, we can change the language and mythology almost on the dime.

People’s lives will improve. The improvement will involve more and more people but the resources will be spared. The economies will shrink materially, but the access and the use of carbon-neutral experiences will expand exponentially. This is the only way, otherwise, the suffering of millions will ensue. In my work on the worldviews, I see the human potential. I read these personal worldviews, work with them and I am amazed: everybody writes about peace, meaningful relationships, and love of nature and beauty. We have to follow our idealistic worldviews. We want this, we just need to be taught how to get it. What for Teilhard de Chardin was a nebulous Omega Point (literally pie in the sky) for us might be a desperate survival maneuver.

 

There will be two complementary essays – the sequels to this one. 

Part 2: Materialists and idealists. I will attempt to find them, find them now, and find them in the past. I have already hinted at the origins of materialism- will talk more about that. Where did they come from and where did they go?

Part 3: I will look into the future, into a new curriculum to build a new society. This utopia is unlike well-known, worn and failed utopias of the past- one of spiritual and moral perfection. We will teach our children,( and grass-root movement sprouts already everywhere,) to be happy without abusing the planet. Their lives, in contrast to the prediction for the year 2050, will be more exciting and rich than ours. They will have more than we have, but no more gadgets or power. They will have more love and friendship. More creativity, fun, discovery, and beauty.

 They will be idealists.

Open letter to all humanists.

This is an open letter to all humanists and this is a great majority of all humans. Most of them do not realize that they are humanists. I want to bring this fact to the open : the King is Naked! The term and the meaning of humanism has been hijacked. Most of us are rational, educated and concerned with human problems( including personal, family and tribe problems). But many of us are still working on the childhood fears of the unknown. We think that if we stick to material, scientific or scriptural, “factual” Universe – we will be safe and if we manage to suppress and deny the unknown- we would win.

It is why in my town of Chattanooga, Tennessee,  a group of 20 or 30 ex-baptists or ex-catholics (like me) huddle every month for the Humanist Assembly meeting. It is how we try to handle the fear of the unknown. Next door in hundreds of churches, few synagogues and mosques hundreds of thousands faithfuls respond to this group by desperate or happy clinging to the religious way to handle the unknown.

The more we resist, the more they persist. But we are the species created by evolution! Like in every species, handling unknown is an essential part of survival. Every stupid animal knows it. Cavemen knew it, medieval men knew it-see all these cathedrals- the renaissance men knew it- read Shakespeare!  The imagination, the art, the poetry and the divine- they are all part of the unknown and of the beautiful and awesome human nature, human myth. Also the competition, arrogance, naivety and cruelty – you pick, literally.

The origin of species was described 250 years ago, but it is not in our bones yet, not in our deep, deep worldview.

Get it! Celebrate the unity of man, his creativity and achievements. Not a second too early. Stop fighting! Instead, try to understand and work together on our fears, on the fears of each of us. The ship is sinking (remember The Tempest?), we are the last hominids remaining. Our ancestors survived  several threats of extinction and almost extinction. The scientism like religions make us tiny, helpless, divided and..wrong. The evolutionary thinking shows clearly how over millions of years we created and named all we can see. We can, this time not by luck, but by reason, duck, sneak out and survive again.

Humanists of the world unite!

 

 

 

I am reading “Genesis” by E.O. Wilson. I love him for the last forty years since I read “Sociobiology”one of the first books in English , while working in The Gambia and learning about the West. Then ” Consilience” and then “On Human Nature”- he is the closest to the mentor- virtual mentor- I never had a “real” one.

Now, putting together my notes, (I have actually finished the book), I see this text in triplicate. I see Wilson’s problem, similar to modern human’s problem, similar to evolutionary trick which created homo sapiens.

Wilson knows more than any human I know, mostly about ants and other insects, some about other animals, and humans. But he is a hard nose materialist, scientist numb and deaf  to the language of unknown.

The same with modern humans, we forgot how to evolutionary benefit from two languages we have learn, one- the language of science, Newtonian logic, materialism and money. Other – the language of divine, poetry, love and empathy. To survive we have to combine both, tertium non datur.

It was the trick which created us, we have to use it again to survive.

The insight came in two steps. First i was reading about  ants , wasp ant termites ( the cousins of cockroaches!) They built eusociality, incredible empires with the intricate system of members programmed to forgo own benefits for the mother queen. These were genetic traits, they strengthened the colony expressed by members instinct and  pheromones and neurotransmitters. But at what a cost !- the cost of rarity- the more formidable these societies are – the fewer of them exist. And this is the evolutionary  no- no, the dead end. With rarity you have no chances for diversity- thats it, finito.

My old concepts of mechanisms of evolution helped me with the second step.

 

The evolution works  via diversity, complexity and the third element, how to call it? – biomass?  or sheer number of organisms, amount of energy absorbed. All three interrelated, all increase the chances of species survival.

The diversity- a major genetic system is preserved at the expense of he minor variations (skin color) producing phenotypes still interbreeding but improving species niche, energy intake.

The complexity- A. the quality of the description of the behavior to be encoded or remembered. the quality of organism’s Umwelt, the system of senses, memories and feelings- it is what we call- outside World.

B.  sociality, system of competition versus cooperation, group selection, the texture of relationships, altruistic group beats selfish group (  David Sloane Wilson)- working for some ants, wasps bees, termites and hominids.

The number, size of the niche, biomass- balances the cost of above elements increases the chances of rare and difficult things to occur.  More often than not it fails and species is extinct, despite being the “good prospects”- the Neanderthals, the dinosaurs, the whales ( almost extinct).

Each route , as we see is expensive, so wouldn’t be just peachy to combine all?

Quite a few systems combines  3 of 4 ways to survive, but the problem was that the tools for complexity- A. and B. -they compete.  A uses vision, sound, ultrasound to describe Umwelt, B. uses chemicals (pheromones), neurotransmitters , electricity- (chakras??) and other senses- smell, and touch. Evolutionary dead end.

Only humans  developed system of combining all 4 elements within one noncompeting but self enhancing system.

It happens when the description of the Umwelt  (A) had to include the description of the elements of (B) eusociality.  Unidirectional communications – orders, warnings, grooming, dominance, even stories did not need to use so much of the “shortcuts” or “grammar”. The Theory of Mind- sure, animals have it, your dog knows  well what you think, but when the toddler tells his friend: “you do it” and the friend answers , “no, you do it”, this is language.

Only when the mother started to teach this ( above) more and more complicated material to  older and older infant the switch occurred. The infant responded IN LANGUAGE, the oxitocin, the love, however you call it, precluded her from ignoring the invention of the communications reciprocity, the relationship did it, and the rest is  history.

To repeat, there is the chance, small chance, in our dwindling niche, for us not to ignore similar situation. To survive (again, remember last 10 000 sapiens leaving Africa?) we need to combine the language of the Umwelt  description, science, materialism with the language of eusociality –  unknown (poetry or spirituality), experience,  empathy.

 

 

 

 

Niche crisis

Niche crisis (this essay has new, expanded version as Niche crisis II)

 

This species is on the brink of extinction. Each species survival relays on the quality of its niche. The resilience of the species depends on ability to adapt to environmental changes. The organisms, members of a species, use energy to build size of the niche , diversity and complexity. 

 Human’s niche is shrinking , diversity is dwindling and the complexity is built to drive these processes  instead of protecting niche and diversity. Quality of life is rapidly decreasing: people are frightened, worried, angry, impoverished physically, emotionally and intellectually.

  This happened before to many other species and they were extinct, including all six species of earlier humans.

  But only our species can observe this happening. 

Can we use this unique fact to  reverse the trend?

 

I will never know, my children might, my grandchildren will know for sure.

 

To survive we need stop fighting- we need to conquer out tribalism, nationalism and religious divides.

 

To survive we need recognise our unity as a species, as a group of fellow travellers on the same leaking boat, develop friendships, admiration to each other and learn how to cooperate.

 

To survive we have to quit being materialistic, learn ourselves   and teach our children from the crib to cherish and be happy with experiences not with things, 

 

To survive we need to shrink our world population and our economies, develop new education system with emphasis on humanities, art, music , theater and philosophy.

Earth Charter

Ecohumanist Lab officially endorses Earth Charter. Everybody should too, we are a sinking ship and we have to unite under the guidance of UN and science to save this wonderful but still foolish species of Homo Sapiens.