Monday, September 21, 2009

7. Thinking Outside the Box: Potentials and Limits of Human Mind

What we know from the emergence of life on Earth, evolution of species, and the role of biodiversity in sustainability and enrichment of life provide a materialist, scientific basis for the ethical position of Deep Ecology.[i],[ii] Let us recall what they are:

“1. The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.”

The remaining six points of the Eight Points of Deep Ecology are prescriptive and follow from these premises. I will return to them when we turn to the discussion of policy.

But before proceeding further, let us pause to explore the concern by at least some who read these notes who still validly ask: are we humans not somehow special? The short answer is: of course, we are. Indeed, each species is special in some way.

However, humans are not among species that are critical for life on Earth. In fact, it is easy to argue that Homo sapiens have the unfortunate distinction of topping the list of invasive species category—species that are not native to an ecosystem and threaten its balance when they are introduced. But why is that so?

To answer this question let us consider one view of how humans are special relative to other animals.

In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin argues that the difference between human and nonhuman minds is “one of degree and not of kind.” Marc Hauser, a leading neuroscientist at Harvard University, thinks Darwin was wrong. Hauser holds a computational view of the mind. Hauser’s view is close to the computational theory of mind in philosophy developed in the 1960s by Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor, and Noam Chomsky’s theory of language that had great impact not just on linguistics but also on cognition theory and on philosophy of mind. Hauser’s research aims to explain how and why a “profound gap” separates human intellect from those of other animals. These studies show that while the building blocks of human cognition exist in other animals, there are four qualities of human mind that are truly unique.[iii] I use Hauser’s argument not because I prefer it to other theories of human mind but because it does tend to be closer to the view that humans are superior to other animals.

In a recent article[iv], Hauser discusses these four uniquely human traits.

1. Generative Computation is “the ability to create virtually limitless variety of ‘expressions,’ be they arrangement of words, sequences of notes, combinations of actions, or strings of mathematical symbols.”[v] Generative computations are two types. Recursion is the repeated use of a rule to create new expressions (e.g., Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.”). The combinatorial operation is mixing of discrete elements to generate new ideas that can be expressed in novel words or musical forms, etc.

2. Promiscuous Combination of ideas makes it possible for humans to routinely connect thoughts from different domains of knowledge. “From this mingling, new laws, social relationships and technologies can result, as when we decide that it is forbidden [moral domain] to push someone [motor action domain] in front of a train [object domain] to save the lives [moral domain] of five others.”[vi]

3. Use of mental symbols enables us to “spontaneously convert any sensory experience—real or imagined—into symbols that we can keep to ourselves or express to others through language, art, music or computer code.”[vii]

4. Ability to use abstract thought is apparently only a human trait. “Unlike animal thoughts, which are largely anchored in sensory and perpetual experiences, many of ours have no clear connection to such events. We alone ponder the likes of unicorns and aliens, nouns and verbs, infinity and God.”[viii]

Hauser dates the historical origin of the newly evolved human mind at approximately 800,000 years ago:

“Although anthropologists disagree about exactly when the modern mind took shape, it is clear from the archaeological record that a major transformation occurred during a relatively brief period of evolutionary history, starting approximately 800,000 years ago in Paleolithic era and crescendoing around 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. It is during this period of Paleolithic, an evolutionary eye-blink, that we see for the first time multipart tools; animal bones punctured to make musical instruments; burials with accoutrements suggesting beliefs about aesthetics and afterlife; richly symbolic cave paintings that capture in exquisite detail events of the past and the perceived future; and control over fire, a technology that combines our folk physics and psychology and allowed our ancestors to prevail over novel environments by creating warmth and cooking foods to make them edible.”[ix]

Hauser is careful to point out that other animals “do exhibit sophisticated behaviors that appear to presage some of our capabilities.”[x] He cited animal “ability to create and modify objects for a particular goal,” “ability to generalize beyond their direct experiences to create novel solutions when exposed to foreign challenges in the laboratory,” “exhibit social behavior in common with humans,” (e.g. teaching their young how to find food), exhibiting “inequity aversion” (e.g., objecting to unfair distribution of food), and ability to change routine daily behavior to meet various needs.

However, Hauser still concludes: “These observations inspire a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature’s R&D solutions. But once we get over this frisson, we must confront the gap between humans and other species…”[xi]

Hauser notes that the “roots of our cognitive abilities remain largely unknown.”[xii] His hope is that neuroscience will help uncover this mystery partly through conducting more animal studies such as study of chimeric animals, in which brain circuits from an individual of one species are transplanted into an individual of another species.

Conducing animal experiments for human scientific curiosity raises important ethical questions and questions about our relation to the rest of nature. What appears to Hauser as the superior quality of human mind has historically translated into a burning desire to understand, control and dominate nature. We cannot enter into the ethics of animal experiments here or devolve on problems associated with the historical tendency to reduce our relation to nature to its scientific understanding and in controlling and dominating it. However, the reader can immediately recognize that these are problems associated with the anthropocentric view of the world. These are also forces at work during the last 10,000 years that have placed Homo sapiens as the primary invasive species causing the present-day environmental and ecological crises that threaten among other things, human life on Earth.

The four qualities of human mind that Hauser notes are mixed blessings. They are partially responsible for the development of class societies and our alienation from ourselves and the rest of nature. We can only hope that they may also help us resolve these historical problems by understanding Our Place in the World and in living in harmony with nature. That consistent with the view that nature and nurture combine to create our minds. While knowledge cannot substitute for wisdom, we can be wiser if we know better. We can perhaps think outside of the box.

Hauser’s message is less hopeful. He concludes by telling us that the human mind, being wired as it is, has trapped us into a mode of thinking that precludes us from “thinking outside of the box.” Thus, human society is essentially the product of our wired brains and there is no escape until and unless evolutionary change will produce a novel mind capable of thinking outside of the present box. Given the burning problems nature an society, few scientists could argue that we have the necessary time for such evolutionary change. Our only hope may be a revolutionary change in the understanding of Our Place in the World and subsequent radical change in our society and the way we relate to the rest of nature.

[i] See, posts 4-6.

[ii] See, post 3, “The Eight Points of Deep Ecology”.

[iii] I am not qualified to express an option on such expert knowledge domain. But the reader should be warned that there are alternative approaches to the study of the mind and some evolutionary biologist can reasonably disagree with Hauser’s computational approach. I use Hauser’s approach because it emphasizes the gap between human and other animals minds and his position somehow resonates with those who argue for human superiority.

[iv] Scientific American, Volume 301, Number 3, September 2009.

[v] Ibid. p. 46.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid. p. 48.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid. p. 51.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

6. Biodiversity

As I noted in the last two posts, evolutionary biology shows us that species evolve in non-deterministic, non-hierarchical way and the Gaia Hypothesis (now accepted as a proven theory for the “weak” statement of it) maintains that they collectively contribute to the maintenance of conditions of Earth's surface within a range conducive to the persistence and perpetuation of life. But how do individual species contribute to the web of life on Earth and weather and how biodiversity matter? Since 1990s, these questions have been tackled by ecologists who have shown that while contribution of species to the maintenance and flourishing of ecosystems vary in degrees, they each contribute to it is a meaningful way and biodiversity is essential for continuation of life on Earth.

To explain this succinctly, let me again turn to professor Shahid Naeem who is one of the early ecologists who worked on reverse engineering of ecosystems.[i]

“Because every species influence Earth’s chemistry—sometimes in barely detectable ways, sometimes in major ways—every species can be said to have a function (though not in the sense of purpose). … [T]he best way to deduce what function a part plays in an ecosystem is to remove it and see what happens. This is standard practice in ecology, with the University of Washington zoologist Robert Paine’s experiment in the 1960s being perhaps the best-known example.

“Paine removed a single species of starfish (Pisaster ochracues) from an intertidal community in Mukkaw Bay, Wash., and found that its absence allowed a prolific species of mussel (Mytilus californianus) to grow and displace most of the other species in the ecosystem. The starfish functioned as a regulator of mussel density, something that could only make sense in the context of the intact ecosystem.”[ii]

Naeem explains that Paine’s method does not result in an explanation of biogeochemistry function of the starfish. To do that one must measure how the distribution of elements in Mukkaw Bay changes in the presence or absence of the starfish. And this is a difficult task; it requires removal of all starfish, and keeping them out for a long time to detect the resulting biogeochemical changes. Alternatively, one can count up all the starfish in the region, determine the respiration rate and estimate how much carbon dioxide they release into the water and atmosphere in a given year. One can also estimate how much carbon they consumed and how much they excreted as waste, and do the same for nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, phosphorus, and so on, until all the likely influences of the starfish species on the ecosystem’s geochemistry were determined.

“As this exercise shows, to determine the functional significance, in terms of biogeochemistry, of even a single species is a daunting task. For this reason, there are few species whose biogeochemical impact are experimentally known. In most cases, as we did for starfish, one estimates what their function is based on size, abundance, growth rates and other biological properties.”[iii]

In the 1990s, ecologists began to reverse engineer ecosystems. A pioneering reverse engineering experiment was the study conducted at Imperial College of London’s Centre for Population Biology under Sir John Lawton, by several scientists including Naeem, of a weedy meadow typical of Berkshire County, England.

“…[W]e deliberately engineered our ecosystem to be different from a real ecosystem in one specific detail: All our meadows were identical except for the amount of biodiversity each had. Six of the chambers contained ecosystems with 31 species of plants and animals inside; four contained only 16 of the original 31 species; another four chambers had just 10. Everything else was the same—the same volume of soil, same amount of light, same amount of water added each day, same breeze, same timing of dusk and dawn.

“What we found was quite surprising. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the communities, the amount of biomass they produced, the fertility of the soil and the amount of water retained by the ecosystems differed. Because everything was held constant among the ecosystems except for their biodiversity, the only conclusion we could come to was that our monkeying with the number of species was sufficient to drastically change the way ecosystem functioned. Most important, there was a clear pattern that related how many species were in the ecosystem with how much carbon dioxide it absorbed: More diversity led to greater absorption of carbon dioxide.

“… There was no doubt that ecosystems were critical to the processes such as the cycling of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and biosphere and the cycling of nutrients between soil, water and the atmosphere, and that these processes were an integral part of global environmental process. The Weak Gaia Hypothesis already told us this. There was also no doubt that some species had strong impacts on an ecosystem while others—such as Paine’s starfish in Mukkow Bay—had weak impact. But no one had experimentally tested the idea that simply reducing the number of species would change ecosystem function.

“Since then there have been numerous studies that have been variations on the same theme—hold as many factors constant as possible, vary biodiversity, then see what happens to the functioning of the ecosystem. …

“These experiments found that some species, when left out, had no detectable effect on biogeochemistry, while in others, if left out, had dramatic effects. But, on average, the removal of species caused changes in ecosystem functioning, and the more species one removed, on average, the stronger these changes become.”[iv]

There are many reasons why loss of biodiversity affects ecosystems. Naeem notes two that emerge most often in experimental research.

“First, the more species one removes, the greater the probability that an extraordinary important species will be lost. But there is a second reason that biodiversity loss reduces ecosystem function: complementarity. The more species you have, the more ways they make use of limited resources such as light, water, nutrients and space.”

The United Nations commissioned Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a five-year effort to assess the state of the planet, published in 2005 and 2006, has become the standard reference for the state of the biosphere.

“This Assessment places biodiversity squarely at the center of all the environmental processes that affect human wellbeing. Whether the environmental problem is the spread of emerging diseases, control of invasive species, food security or climate regulation, and whether we are talking about human health, poverty, education or even freedom itself, almost all aspects of human well-being and prosperity traces back to biodiversity for their foundation.”[v]

While there is a bit of instrumentalist view of nature in Naeem’s concluding paragraph, it offers much wisdom backed by scientific research on how each individual species contributes to the functioning and prosperity of the web of life on Earth and that biodiversity much like cultural diversity enriches it. Here is further evidence for the ethical foundations of Deep Ecology as well why any sound theory of radical social change needs to be based on ecocenterism.

[i] Naeem, Shahid, “Lessons from the Reverse Engineering of Nature: The Importance of Biodiversity and the True Significance of the Human Species,” Miller-McCune, pp. 56-71, May-June 2009.

[ii] Ibid. p. 63.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. pp. 63-64.

[v] Ibid. 65-66.