Looking for the Logos of Life X: a Friend in Need

Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Random House,304 pages (2020)

I read the Kindle edition, which seemed to be complete, and had links that made looking at the many references easy.

I used to teach a course in the general education curriculum at my institution called Animal and Human. We read and discussed the work of Jane Goodall (Through a Window, 1990) and Franz de Waal (Good Natured, 1996) among others, trying to understand the connections between ourselves and our closest relatives, the primates, including chimpanzees and bonobos.I found these readings compelling because of the questions they raise about the nature of our cognitive and emotional lives and how our peculiar combination of traits could be produced by Darwinian evolution.

This book provides a popular summary of much research on the same questions since the mid 1990s and brings in some studies, which while not so recent, contribute to understanding the recent results. I’m neither a primatologist nor an animal behaviorist nor a cognitive biologist, so much of this was new to me.

The first part of the book deals with the author’s view on how we humans became the highly intelligent beings that we are, living in large, technologically advanced societies. Put briefly, they believe that around 80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to undergo an evolutionary change they call “self domestication.” Slowly at first, but then rapidly after about 50,000 years ago, humans became more friendly, which enabled them to live together in larger groups, which in turn promoted technological and other cultural advances. This led in the end to modern humans supplanting all the other lineages of the Genus Homo, so now the only traces of these peoples are found in the DNA from occasional intercrossing (see my post on Ancient DNA).

The key behavioral change was the acquisition of the ability to be friendly to strangers. If we live in large groups, say, more than a few hundred individuals, we will not be able to become closely familiar with everyone. We will continually be encountering people we don’t know. Most animals that exhibit complex social behavior show a strong aversion to strangers. Chimpanzees, for instance, are very hostile to any chimpanzee they don’t recognize as a member of their group. When groups become large enough, they tend to split, as Jane Goodall describes in Through a Window. The group at Gombe she was studying broke up at one point. Shockingly, the males of one group began systematically hunting down and attacking members of the other group, until none remained. Likewise males were observed to attack stranger females and kill their infants.

Humans, say the authors, somehow were in a position where it became more advantageous in terms of reproductive fitness to welcome outsiders into the group and to coalesce into larger bands. Why this happened cannot be easily determined, but bonobos may provide a clue. Hare and Woods think that they, too, may have undergone self domestication. This explains why levels of aggression are much lower among bonobos than chimpanzees. The key, they think, was that resources in their habitat are much more stable and productive than in habitats occupied by chimpanzees. This led to less competition and more cohesion among females, who could then control the aggressive tendencies of males. Females no longer gave clear signs of when they were on oestrus, making it harder for males to be sure who was fertile. This further reduced the benefit of dominating both females and other males. More freedom to move among groups, greater sharing of resources and other advantages followed.

Hare and Woods think dogs also self domesticated in the presence of large hunter gatherer bands in the late paleolithic. By being friendlier and less fearful or aggressive towards humans, they were able to exploit the waste dumps that were a feature of camps. Closer relations gradually developed, and at some point, humans began to do some selecting of dogs they found useful.

Friendliness alone was not the only change: it turns out that the physiological underpinnings of friendliness are in the brain and especially the modifying effects of oxytocin, serotonin and testosterone. These are developmentally regulated by genes that are expressed in the neural crest in very early embryos. These cells differentiate and migrate to different parts of the developing individual and affect not only behavior, but also skull shape, snout length, coat and eye color, the curl of the tail and so on. The authors claim that this selection on friendliness they posit brought along all the changes we see in dogs versus their wolf ancestors. Similar changes are seen in bonobos and humans as well.

To support this thesis, they recount the work of Russian geneticists and breeders, who in a few generations, produced domesticated foxes, with many of the traits of domestic dogs, by selecting for friendliness alone. It seems almost unbelievable that merely choosing the foxes most willing to approach humans, would have so many distinct effects. Since, however, the number allowed to breed each generation is a tiny fraction of the whole population, the selection factor is extremely powerful. Furthermore, as noted above, the genes that affect willingness to approach strangers also have impacts on many parts of the organism.

The second part of the book turns to the dark side: being friendly to members of your group means being unfriendly to members of other groups. Oxytocin makes mother bears feel good when they see their cubs, but according to the authors, it makes them that much madder when they perceive a threat

Dogs bark at strangers; humans are suspicious of anyone who doesn’t appear to “belong.” It is easy to create situations where anything that can be used to identify someone as from a particular category that is seen as a threat. Skin color, language, dress, religious signs and symbols are only too familiar examples. Demagogues use this all the time to divide groups and unite them against one another. If you can get your followers afraid enough and angry enough at some group of “enemies,” they won’t notice what you are doing to them.

So how do we guard against such proclivities becoming fatal to our peace and tranquillity? Hare and Woods think that most efforts to eliminate existing fears and prejudices are as likely to backfire as to work. In other words, you can’t talk people out of these perceptions, and efforts to stigmatize them may only create distrust and resentment. They cite the example of the people from diverse backgrounds who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation: the single factor uniting them was some experience of a close, friendly relationship with a Jew at some time during their early life. Apparently this immunized them against the vilification served up by Hitler and his followers. Can we find ways to achieve the same sort of immunization in our contemporary global society? 

I think it would be difficult, given how valuable dividing people into categories is to politicians and marketers. It’s also hard to remedy historic wrongs without identifying the groups that have suffered them. Whatever self domestication achieved in the human species, it didn’t eradicate our impulse towards dominance and hierarchy entirely. We still have a need to feel superior to someone, even if it’s only Yankees fans. In a society where exploiting political, social and economic loyalties leads to wealth and power, it is very hard to get those with the most of both to kick the habit. Those less fortunate console themselves by feeling superior to those they fear and despise. As the old joke says: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Looking for the Logos of Life IX: Entangled Life

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House, 2020, 368 pp. Kindle Edition.

Image: Agaricus bisporus mycelium. Rob Hille. 9 December 2011 from Wikimedia Commons
I would describe this as a tantalizing book. Merlin Sheldrake writes in the mode so common to current popular science books, breathlessly exclaiming that these discoveries change how we think about everything. Boiled down, his message is that fungi created the world we know and continue to underpin its foundations. The case he makes is no better and no worse than most such claims, which I suspect every editor for publishers of nonfiction books tries to attach to every work that crosses his or her desk. Much of what Sheldrake describes is new looks at well known phenomena: the section on psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, for instance. It offers glimpses of a deeper understanding of what the chemicals fungi do to animal nervous systems, but reaches no firm conclusions.

It offers a lot of new information and speculation on the myriad roles that fungi have come to play in the biosphere, and a bunch of interesting potential applications to human problems (you can make, among many other things besides antibiotics, beer, wine and bread, fungal dog biscuits (Mutt-rooms)  and packing foam) He also discusses mycoplasma-remediation as a solution to contaminated sites from oil spills to herbicides. They will even break down discarded cigarette filters.

Interesting as these things are, they are not, in my view going to fundamentally alter our view of life.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable book. Sheldrake knows his fungi from intimate experience, and he writes well, except for the occasional hyperbolic outburst or awkward analogy. He explains a lot of exciting new research using DNA sequencing, tracer analysis and ingenious lab experiments to understand the role that fungi play in terrestrial ecosystems as decomposes, parasites and symbiotic partners with plants and each other. He spent many hours himself, doing down and dirty work in the forests of Panama, following the roots of a tiny mycoheterotrophic plant and the mycelial network of its fungal associate. He also talked to a wide range of fungus researchers in fields like anthropology as well as biology and shares their insights into the roles fungi play in nature and culture. Some of the most interesting characters are the fungal enthusiasts – mushroom freaks, one might say, truffle hunters and entrepreneurs working to create products from fungus ranging from ersatz leather to bricks. I like this better than 3D printing, with its inputs of resins, metals etc. Also I doubt you can make a fungal firearm at home.

I wish he had been even more comprehensive: for instance he says little about fungi and human illness. His discussions of fungi and food omit such important staples as tempeh. He talks a little about his own work on mycotrophy, but doesn’t mention the possibility that plants may be able to survive mycotrophically when competitions squeeze them out of the struggle for light. How else is it possible for plants in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, like turkey beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) pine barrens reed grass (Calamovilfa brevipilis) pine barrens gentian (Gentiana autumnal) and maybe even scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolis) to appear so quickly after fire, after a long interval since the last fire and no individuals could be seen in the unburned forest? Do their mycorrhizal root systems simply live off their fungal partners until a burn clears the space for them to send up shoots, leaves, flowers and fruits?

What do fungi tell us about life in general, if anything? His theme is interconnectedness. The title echoes Darwin’s image of the “entangled bank.” He frequently repeats the view that life is less about individuals than about networks of interaction and exchange, some mutually beneficial, some exploitative, some switching back and forth depending on circumstances. Like like Lynn Margulis, discoverer of the symbiotic origins of cellular organelles and the authors I discussed in my previous post Looking for the Logos of Life VIII: Organism and Superorganism, Sheldrake questions the reality of individuals.

Why the determination to shatter us into fragments? Whatever I mean by “I” doesn’t include the microbes indigenous to my body. I am not them, and it’s arguable whether I am even the parts of my body that are the result of the form encoded in the DNA I got from my parents. When I think of the Pythagorean theorem, it isn’t a soggy collection of bacteria doing that, or sharing in the contemplation. [??] The scientists want to abolish me entirely or reduce me to an aggregation of trillions of cells, of diverse descent. Meanwhile the social theorists would reduce me to nothing but culturally determined categories: white, male, middle class, straight, cis gendered, etc. But what I think about I’m free to select from a vast web of tradition both ancient and up to the minute, delivered to me in multiple modes. That’s the most relevant entanglement: the mycelium of ideas. It’s in the tangled network that is my brain, but it is there because I chose to attend to those ideas as they came to me and because I made the effort, sometimes racked my brain, to connect them to what was already there. 

Anyway, fungi are amazing enough in their own right: in their chief domain, the soil, they are virtually sovereign, with allies like bacteria and the numerous arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, etc, that shred and stir the vast amounts of dead plant material that enter their realm every year. Constantly grazed by animals, they regenerate at phenomenal rates in every cubic centimeter of dirt. Without them, dead plant material would pile up, as it does in bogs, where lack of oxygen excludes them. Carbon would be locked away and CO2 levels would fall to the point of global cooling, as they did in the  Permian ice ages, which followed the Carboniferous age of coal formation.

In his ecological classic, The Biosphere, V. I. Vernadsky talked about the speed of life – the rate of expansion of a disk of cells, imagined as multiplying to cover the earth. Sheldrake makes an even more startling calculation: according to his reckoning, if all the fungal hyphae that have been produced were laid end to end, they would extend further than the limit of the visible universe, i.e. they would have expanded faster than the speed of light. Even though this is a bit like saying that if one airplane can fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours, two can make it in two and a half hours, it’s still a remarkable image. It gives some hint just how ubiquitous and prolific fungi are in our world.

 

Deep History

Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon. Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1991.

This book is deep history of a single locality, Chase County Kansas, a thinly populated, largely rural part of the Flint Hills and the great North American grasslands. The book’s coverage extends far into the geologic past and up to the early 1990s. By then, as in much of rural America a peak of population and development had been passed, and its farms, ranches, villages and towns were becoming depopulated. Heat-Moon spent many months driving and walking about the county, systematically taking up one by one the grid of USGS topographic maps (twelve central ones and thirteen more that cover the edges) that include Chase County. He talked with a great many of the residents and others with connections to the land, the people and the history. He also read extensively, prefacing each of the twelve sections (one for each central topo map) with a series of excerpts from his commonplace book, relating to the themes he follows in that section. The quotations come from hundreds of books, newspapers, journals.

Geology, botany, zoology occupy almost as much of the six hundred pages as the people. A Native American himself, he devotes much space to the aboriginal people, the Kaw, also sometimes called the Kansa (among a host of other names that he cites) By the time he wrote, the few remaining members of that tribe resided on Oklahoma, to which they had been “removed” in the 1870s.

Summarizing this remarkable work of observation, listening and reflection is not possible. I was deeply impressed both by how fascinating a seemingly backwater place can be and by how deeply Heat-Moon engaged with the land and people. Despite often being seen as an eccentric outsider, he showed great respect for the locals and was able to win the confidence of many. His self reflections are often profound and often extremely amusing. The best travel writers often are like that: I think of Bill Bryson.

What I realized reading Prairie Erth was how much I am interested in the deep history of the places I have lived. I think that’s why I am captivated by books that lay out the events that shaped the landscapes I am most familiar with. If you have seen my earlier posts, New World History, Forgotten but not Gone, Ecosystem Lost and Found?, The Journeys of Holling C. Holling, and even Amphibious Reflections, you will have encountered my interest.

I live in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, on land once part of Gloucester Plantation, which was centered on Gloucester Furnace, an iron foundry. It can be fairly said that the Pine Barrens were one of the industrial centers of the early United States, although now, many people describe them as a “pristine wilderness.” This sort of blindness to the past seems endemic among us, as amply demonstrated in Forgotten Grasslands of the South and Looking for Longleaf.

Fortunately, there have always been some more inquiring minds, who have sought out the past and tried to preserve or at least document it. For my area, there are many books, like Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, that record these past landscapes and communities. Many individuals like Jean Soderland, are researching the history of indigenous people. There is now a periodical devoted to all aspects of the regions history, SoJourn.

I have had at least five colleagues who dedicated their research to understanding the geological and cultural history of the region: a hydrologist, a geographer, a historian, an archaeologist and a geologist. The geologist started out in horticulture, but became so interested in the natural landscapes of the Pine Barrens that he took a PhD in geology to further his collaborations with a noted glacial geologist. He has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the ways that the Ice Ages shaped the topography of the Pine Barrens and indeed the entire North American coastal plain.

The North American Coastal Plain consists of marine of riverine sands and gravels accumulated on the edge of the ocean. From these soils develop that drain rapidly and are prone to severe drought. Fire has been a force in the landscape for millions of years, varying in frequency and intensity with climate and, since a few thousand years ago, with human activity. Groundwater saturates these porous sediments, often nearly to or above the surface. Upland vegetation historically burned often, the extensive lowlands only in severe droughts. 

 The ice age climate was dry, cold and ferociously windy as frigid air flowed off the ice sheets only a short way north. The landscape that developed as the climate warmed included wide but very shallow river channels, with streams too small for their valleys. These were created by melting permafrost. There are numerous shallow ponds in depressions, some nearly circular, created by powerful winds during full glacial periods, others long, winding and narrow, created by blowing sand blocking stream courses. Low, sandy ridges are the remains of ancient fields of dunes created by the same winds that blew out the depressions. 

Early European settlers cut the trees, dammed the streams and began creating mills, cranberry bogs and crop fields. They started many iron plantations in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, utilizing the local bog iron, the pine forests (for charcoal) and the shell maddens left by the aboriginal inhabitants, the Lenape, to produce iron. As iron industry moved west, paper and glassmaking took over the old water powered mill sites.

Today, the former Gloucester Plantation tract has been through several phases of settlement and resettlement. The land was promoted in a real estate endeavor that became Egg Harbor City. A town was laid out, at first facing Landing Creek and the Mullica River, then reoriented to the railroad that was built in the 1850s from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The hinterlands were sold as farms, mainly to German-speaking immigrants, most of whom left eastern cities to escape the anti-immigrant Know-nothings (see Before the Storm and Politics and War) Egg Harbor City thrived as an agricultural and small manufacturing town and then gradually faded until the advent of the FAA Technical Center, Stockton College (now University) and the Atlantic City Casinos. These brought in new residents, but not much new commerce, which developed mostly in the central and eastern parts of Atlantic County. The establishment of the Pinelands National Reserve in 1979 restricted commercial and industrial development and even residential development over much of the Gloucester tract.

 Farming continues, mainly commercial blueberries (a crop developed in the Pine Barrens) and, more recently, community supported agriculture. Much of the land, however, reverted to forest. Not the open woodlands of the years before fire suppression became the policy in New Jersey, but dense, closed canopy oak and pine forests, with thick understory of huckleberries. This lowered the groundwater table, drying up ponds and headwater streams. It also caused the native herbaceous plants to become much less frequent and with them their associated insects, especially butterflies and moths. Many are now only found in a few well managed preserves and, ironically, in utility line corridors and airports, which are kept open by mowing in the dormant season.  

The region’s roadsides, once a haven for native herbs, have been converted by mowing and addition of cool season grass, to monotonous and sterile strips. Unpaved roads, trails and open areas are now the domain of off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who flood the Pine Barrens on weekends, destroying habitat. The worst are the “mudders,” who have wiped out hundreds of localities for rare and endangered wetland plants. Species not native to the Pine Barrens are increasingly taking over, especially on recently abandoned cleared land. I am in continual struggle with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Asian barberry, and Eurasian bittersweet.

I pin my hopes on the position of the New Jersey Coastal Plain as the northernmost (excepting Long Island and Cape Cod) part of the great North American Coastal Plain biodiversity hotspot.  As climate change pushes populations northward and sea level rise shrinks the Coastal Plain, southern New Jersey may be a critical refuge for southern species. But who can tell? It could just as well succumb to rampant deregulation and competing interests, like the infernal off-roaders. 

Change over millions of years shaped the landscape and the evolution of the Pine Barrens’ characteristic flora and fauna. I tried to impress this on my students in the years I taught ecology. The processes that operate in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere – energy flow, nutrient cycling, population dynamics, evolution and cultural change – shape what we see around us. And every development leaves traces on the land and in the living organisms that inhabit it. Without an understanding of the history of the place you are in, you cannot understand its present or future.

Aldo Leopold: The Ecologist and the Story of Job

Aldo Leopold. A Sand county Almanac and Essays on Conservation from Round River. Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz. Oxford University Press. 1966.

Image from Maxpixels.net

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

 – Aldo Leopold, Round River

Reading Aldo Leopold’s ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac, with my college classmates at our 50th reunion this fall, I made an unexpected connection to a much older story that also concerns humans’ relation to the wilderness. In an earlier blog post (https://nearctictraveller.blog/2019/06/26/the-book-of-job-traveler-in-a-strange-land/), I compared Job’s comforters’ understandings and Job’s understanding of God’s creation. Their conventional wisdom cannot satisfy Job, who has directly experienced disaster that he is certain cannot be punishment for any transgressions on his part. Misfortune pushed Job beyond the boundaries of human society, into “the place of the jackal.” When the voice from the whirlwind opens his eyes, Job sees that the world which God’s created works in ways that defy his and his friends’ concepts of right and wrong. 

Aldo Leopold also was forced to give up the comfortable sense humans know best what is right in the natural world and that all is manageable for human benefit. Leopold began his career as an ardent proponent of controlling wildlife for what he viewed as human interest, but also with an openness to a deeper experience of wild things. His revelation came on a mountain, far from human society. As he describes it, the fading of the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying she wolf revealed that his understanding had been too simple. In “Thinking like a Mountain,” he acknowledges that although he once sought to exterminate them, he came to recognize that wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, like Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, have a place in the world.  

Unlike the Job of the story’s ending, Leopold is not able to recover what he has lost. On the other hand, his suffering is neither so physical nor so personal. Instead, suffering comes from a growing recognition that the world’s wealth of ecological communities are being lost to human progress.

In the essay on cutting down an old dead oak tree for firewood, he uses the saw’s progress through the annual rings of the tree to recount all that has been destroyed over the century and more since the tree first grew. It’s a history of extirpation of many species, of vast changes in the landscape and of a few uncertain steps to save some of the remainder.

Like Job, Leopold wants to rebuild our human life on a new foundation of knowledge: the way the world works is deeply counter to our conventional wisdom. He makes this especially clear in his essay, “The Land Ethic,” where he calls for a new standard for judging our actions in relation to the ecological community. In the Old Testament, the voice out of the whirlwind commands Job to consider behemoth, “whom I made as I made you.” Behemoth and the other beasts described in that passage are as much a part of the world as Job and his friends. As he came to understand ecology, Leopold was similarly convinced that we are not a separate, privileged species, above the rest of the ecological community, but ordinary members and citizens of it. In other words, we are all in this together. 

Like all living things, we must live by exploiting other lives, at least to some extent. Unlike others, we can ask ourselves whether there are limits to exploiting the natural community beyond which we will be less just and less happy as a human community. Leopold cannot say for certain what those limits should be, though he can see plenty of examples of wanton and careless destruction that we do too little to prevent. What he feels sure of is that we ought to preserve at least some of all the components that make up the ecological community and that we ought to regard ourselves as part of it, not its masters.

The Book of Job wraps up the story neatly, I would say a bit too neatly, in the end. Is that because as some think, the redacted version has been made to fit into a conventional framework of religious piety, however bizarre that seems to make God’s actions? In any case, Leopold can have no such replacements for his losses, because they are not his alone, and it will take generations to stop the losses and begin to recover. For instance, the United States passed The Endangered Species Act, on paper one of our strongest environmental laws. Implementing it, however, has been an uphill battle against both lack of scientific understanding and determined resistance by those who must forego immediate gains. Even as we make incremental progress, habitat destruction, climate change and pollution are endangering ever more species.

The sentiment expressed in Round River is as true today as when Leopold wrote. To learn ecology is to come to realize how extensive the world’s wounds are. Let us hope that they can be healed.

Cultural DNA

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 2009.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins. 2001.

The Wayfinders, based on lectures by Davis, forms a counterpoint to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. They reveal the “cultural DNA” that binds populations of humans together: language, myths, memories and mental maps of the world. This kind of inheritance is what enabled the ancient Polynesians to spread their DNA across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and allows their descendants to replicate their feats of navigation today. It also tells us that all across the world, those chains of inheritance have been and are being broken, as aggressive societies impose their own language and culture on the populations they conquer, enslave, displace or assimilate. This is much like the way conquerors have spread their genes into new territory. In the end only traces of both the biological and the cultural may remain, to be ferreted out by geneticists or anthropologists. Sometimes, though, survivors stubbornly retain their heritage, like the Basques in Spain and many native peoples around the world.

Great empires often produce great and stable cultures – the art, literature, philosophy and mathematics of China, India, Greece, Rome and the still growing body of European science, etc. These become even richer by mutual appropriation. Among the most enduring exchanges are the earliest: agriculture, animal domestication, wheeled transport, boatbuilding and metallurgy. Like the history of ancient DNA, the history of cultures shows patterns of repeated migration and assimilation or displacement over millennia. It seems though, that the asymmetry of power has at least in recent times, produced even more lopsided results for cultures than what Reich finds for genomes. Male conquerors, as I noted in the previous post, have spread a disproportionate share of their genes in the mixing of populations, but often the dominated population persisted through the maternal line. Only rarely did the invaders utterly eliminate the previous occupants of a territory.

More and more cultures are being completely wiped out by modern empires. Military might, coupled with schools to teach the language of the imperial power and religious conversion, forced or voluntary, can drive out languages and traditions. Within the borders of the parent nation states, local dialects and traditions have given way to a homogenized culture. That makes governance and commerce easier, but it destroys the particularity and richness of the land. The advent of compulsory schooling and of mass advertising pushes homogenization even further. Mass media and entertainment smooth out irregularities and quirks. While some people promote the preservation of local tradition, others decry the lack of common values and beliefs in the nation.

Davis tries to show how much is lost when the past is blotted out. Far from being primitive, he argues, these cultures drew on human capacities for learning and memory far beyond the accomplishments of those with modern education. We rely on the collective power of our culture and its embodiment in writing and technology that we don’t become as skilled and knowledgeable as those who lack such aids. We rarely know much about the natural world around us. Almost no “advanced” culture enables a person to survive on just what the land can provide. However productive our economies are, we leave untapped or simply obliterate most of nature’s variety. Witness the fact that a mere three or four species of domestic animals outweigh by an order of magnitude all the rest of the larger land animals on the planet.

Often the natural products do more for these cultures than nourish the body. They provide pathways into spiritual experiences that deepen connections to both the natural and human worlds. The power of the shaman has been a recurrent preoccupation of Davis, whose early popular works on ethnobotany and especially mind-altering plants, The Serpent and the Rainbowand One River, show how they shaped lives for thousands of years. The most important thing that people who still know the power of sacred plants, animals, rocks and places can remind those of us immersed in a globalizing, dominant culture is that we remain dependent on the earth and the functioning of the natural cycles of land, air, water and life. We disrespect and ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Unfortunately, to sustain itself materially, any meaningful culture needs land. We discovered this problem in the nineteenth century, when the reservations set aside for native Americans came under constant pressure from hunters, miners, loggers and farmers. The same is true today in South America, India, Africa.  The result is bloodshed and displacement. Only places that have no resources that the dominant culture wants are left unclaimed. Even here, proselytizing and poaching remain constant issues. Furthermore, given the often stringent demands of traditional ways, there is a continual drain on the population as its members drift away into the dominant milieu.

Mostly the old can exist only with the protection and support of the newer and more powerful, which is almost always accompanied by condescension or ambivalence. Davis tries hard to show why condescension is unjustified, but without the ability to maintain itself in its own territory, it seems to me that almost any culture will begin to seem simply quaint and curious. We may assimilate some music into our popular culture or convert some sacred plants into recreational drugs, even claim to try to follow the spiritual paths laid out by this or that shamanistic tradition. Only anthropologists are going to really study cultures on their own terms, as best they can.

Of course some cultures like Judaism have become integrated into the economic systems of dominant cultures, but with much the same dangers faced by tribal societies elsewhere. Isn’t that why the state of Israel has such fierce supporters? We see ethnic traditions preserved or revived by people long separated from their homelands. Costumes, folk songs, holidays, parades, fairs and so on remind us that there have been many distinct national and local ways of living. But much of this seems like once a year dress up, not a way of life now. Even religious distinctions are blurring as evangelical churches spread a homogenized, flavorless gospel. Their success is driven in part by politics and economics, aided by mass media. Ancient tradition loses out to a uniform set of wants and means of satisfying them.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods revolves around the slow dying out of the hundreds of local gods brought to the United States by immigrants from all over the world, from 14,000 years ago to the present. In his fantasy, these gods still linger on the fringes of society, fending for themselves as the flow of gifts and sacrifices from humans dries up. They know that if their names are forgotten, they will die. The novel concerns their efforts to recapture some of their old power and of a few humans who become entangled in the mythical struggle. Gaiman is a reader of Davis, I suspect, as well as a serious student of mythic traditions himself. The story, like most of Gaiman’s work, is fast moving, funny, violent and a pleasure to read. I also like the second book in this series, Anansi Boys.

Journeys Written in DNA

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. Pantheon. 2018.

Image: pixabay.com and pmgimage.com

When I spent a summer on the campus of Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1987, one of the groups meeting there was comprised of researchers working on planning the Human Genome Project. The project, which ran for about fifteen years, starting in 1990, cost several billion dollars and produced a single composite DNA sequence for Homo sapiens. Hard to believe that today, thousands of sequences are run routinely at a cost so low that you can get your own sequence in one to two days for $1000.

David Reich provides an account of the recent developments in studying ancient DNA, which is beginning to provide a picture of the evolution of our genus, Homo, over the last 50-150 thousand years, roughly the time that enough DNA remains in old bones or teeth to allow sequencing. The field is rapidly expanding, as more labs open across the world to explore the accumulated human remains in museums, as well as newly excavated material.

Among the findings he reviews are the discovery that early modern humans did indeed hybridize with the archaic populations of Homo that were already in Europe and Asia when the first Homo sapiens moved out of Africa. These earlier people included the Neanderthals and the newly recognized Denisovans. Another finding is that the spread of Indo-European language and culture was indeed accompanied by a spread of people with steppe genotypes into Europe as far west as the British Isles ( see my post on The Horse, the Wheel and Language) The modern human population of Europe turns out to have been the result of multiple waves of migration, bringing not only cultural innovations like farming, but also new human lineages that displaced or blended with the earlier people.

In fact, everywhere that geneticists examine ancient genomes, they find that multiple migrations have shaped human destiny. In North and South America, the most recent areas of human occupation, at least three different migrations can be seen in the genes, and there is still much more work to be done. Likewise, the Indian subcontinent holds a story of migration of Indo-European speakers from the steppes of Central Asia, displacing and blending with the earlier Dravidian language speakers. East Asia has similar patterns, spilling out into the Pacific. These are truly epic journeys of the human species.

Reich discusses the implications of these findings at length. The chapter on genetics and inequality was particularly interesting. The subject is the differences between and within sexes in numbers of offspring produced, as shown by the frequency of distinct gene sequences from a single ancestor among descendent populations. Because men can produce offspring with very little direct effort compared to women, it is possible for men to have many more children in a lifetime. I recall my world history teacher in high school saying that Augustus the Strong of Saxony, “only had about four hundred children.” Circumstantial evidence suggests that Genghis Kahn, thirteenth century Mongol conqueror is the male ancestor of millions, though this is disputed. Certainly, powerful rulers, if fertile and with access to a succession of willing or unwilling consorts, can father many, many sons and daughters.

Reich cites data that indicate that a number of individuals were the fathers of similarly large numbers of descendants during the period between five thousand and three thousand years ago as Neolithic farming peoples began to feel the effects of new technologies: pastoralism, the horse, the wheel and metalworking. In The Horse the Wheel and Language, David Anthony discusses the idea that the new technologies made it possible for tribal chiefs to accumulate power, wealth and prestige. Such men may have led aggressive expansions into new territory, like Genghis, fathering enough descendants for their distinctive Y-chromosomes to show up in genetic analyses. When peoples mix by this mode of male driven conquest, the result is that Y- chromosomes are from the conquering group, while mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, is from the original inhabitants.

I heard a similar idea many years ago in a seminar on the shift from mother goddess based religion to male sky god religions. Anthony suggests this too in his account of the steppe peoples whose culture and Indo-European language spread widely in this period. The long ago speaker attributed it to mining for metals de-sanctifying the earth, but I suspect it more likely related to the technologies listed above allowing a subset of males to accumulate power. There are now many other cases, from ancient China to medieval Ireland documented by genetic researchers.

Another point Reich makes is that genomics can become a very touchy issue for contemporary descendants of our diversified ancestors. Ethnocentrism is alive and well, from scientists from India who maintain that there were no migrants from the Asian steppes to Navajo elders who refuse to countenance genetic testing arguing that they already know how the Dine were created. Origins are disputed territory: how many Americans still believe in Adam and Eve? Reich points out the falsity of the politically motivated myths of Aryan origins promulgated by German nationalists and still alive today. These crumble in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the modern inhabitants of Northern Europe originated from an amalgam of previous populations with invaders from Central Asia. Migration and mixing of populations and cultures, as we know only too well, is often seen as a threat.

Reich is sensitive to the ethical issues raised by these powerful technologies. He finally consulted a rabbi on the question of whether it was morally right to disturb the dead to obtain genetic material from bones. The answer: only if the knowledge gained will contribute to human  understanding. On the even more fraught question of what population wide genetic studies may reveal about average differences between identifiable groups of people, Reich says two things: First, the question must be faced with accurate data, lest it become the province of pseudoscientific or politically motivated interpretations. Second, whatever the facts are, we know that all groups contain a wide range of potentialities, all of which deserve a chance to be fully realized. Even if a person is not in the upper percentiles of learning ability or athletic ability, the human capacity for hard work makes it possible to succeed. I think Reich means that while  admire the extreme standouts, the Einsteins and Usain Bolts, the bulk of the useful work in the world gets done by those of us closer to the average.

Finally, Reich discusses individual genetic testing. He is in favor of the study of DNA at the population level for medical reasons and also at the individual level, if this helps reduce the incidence of illness caused by recessive mutations. He doesn’t object to individual testing to discover ancestry, but he is not interested in learning about his own genetic background. He seems to feel that focusing on our own unique genomes distracts us from the heritage we share with everyone else, of which the most important part is non-genetic. The simple fact that we are alive tells us that we come from an unbroken genetic line of survivors. Being able to claim descent from particular populations really doesn’t prove much of anything about your own worthiness. Moreover, making such claims can lead to embarrassment, as Elizabeth Warren has discovered.

Humans have been evolving culturally for much longer than the period for which we can get DNA data. Given how much of our behavior is learned, it is likely that our cultural milieu has been a major part of our environment for a long time. Cultures evolve. In doing so, they change the selective environment for humans and the things that live with them. Cultural change drives natural selection. That is, culture shapes our genes indirectly through natural selection as much as genes shape our culture.

As a social species, cultural traditions matter as much or more than our particular DNA in shaping how we live. Many of us, however, know very little of that tradition, or only slivers of it, dependent on our nationality, ethnicity, religion or profession. Too many people grow up with almost no knowledge of any tradition. Even though he professes no religion now, Reich was raised in a deep cultural tradition, Ashkenazi Judaism. He recognizes that all human populations have come out of similarly rich traditions. Together, they represent the most important heritage of the human species; as much as DNA, they are who we are and how we got here.

The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.

Tunnel into Hell

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment by Paul Conroy. Weinstein Books. 2013.

Image: Flickr 8210896317

I listened to the Audible edition.

Marie Colvin, war correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, was killed on February 22, 2012, in Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria. The Syrian Army had laid siege to the area after its residents resisted the Assad regime’s violent suppression of initially peaceful dissent. Colvin and the author of this account, photographer Paul Conroy, had been sent in on assignment to get the story on the impact on the civilian population.

To reach Baba Amr, the two had to enter Syria illegally from Lebanon, cross territory patrolled by the Syrian army and sneak into the besieged town through a storm drain several kilometers long, used by the rebel forces for resupply and to evacuate wounded fighters and civilians. The trip by car or pickup truck over rough roads or no roads at all, often under fire, as well as the foul, claustrophobic tunnel was the stuff of nightmares.

Once in, they found themselves at the “media center” where a few other journalists and a staff of activists for the resistance put out a stream of reports and YouTube videos to try to focus attention on the brutal assault by the government forces, especially the many civilian casualties. They reported from the makeshift hospital, which tried, with little equipment and few drugs, to treat the often horrifically wounded victims. After filing their first story, they were advised to get out before the army made its final assault. Having retraced the arduous route in, they were dismayed to learn that no assault had taken place.

Marie Colvin was determined to go back and Paul Conroy reluctantly agreed. When they returned to the media center in Baba Amr, the bombardment was even worse. Colvin filed another report and then gave live interviews to several broadcast outlets, including CNN. These, which were undoubtedly monitored by Syrian intelligence, probably had something to do with the next day’s tragedy.

On the 22nd, Colvin, Conroy and four French and Spanish journalists were about to leave for the hospital when Conroy, an artillery spotter in his days in the British army, became alarmed. He realized that the shells were falling in a pattern that meant the gunners were zeroing in on the media canter. Confusion followed as some fled the building, while others stayed put. It mattered little: multiple shells scored direct hits. Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the French photographer, died instantly. Conroy, the French reporter, Edith Bouvier, and the Syrian translator, Wa’el were all seriously wounded.

The survivors spent a further week trapped in the city under constant barrage, receiving minimal medical treatment. Conroy was evacuated through the tunnel, which had been blasted shut but was reopened. To escape he had to drag himself, with a horribly torn leg and other serious wounds, through a muddy passage barely wide enough for his body. The Syrian resistance managed to get him to comparative safety in Lebanon. Even there  agents of the Assad regime were looking for him. The British embassy arranged for his evacuation to London, where he spent a year in hospital. All the other journalists and the translator also eventually escaped and recovered.

As an account of Marie Colvin’s last assignment, this is a gripping read. It was the final gamble in decades of risk taking, from Chechnya to Sri Lanka to Lybia, for the sake of getting the story from places where governments were doing dirty work and trying to prevent the rest of the world from learning about it. In East Timor, she went beyond just reporting. Her refusal to leave the refugees whose plight she was covering probably saved fifteen hundred lives. In at least one case it was clear that government forces deliberately tried to kill her, despite knowing she was a journalist. In that incident in Sri Lanka, she lost an eye. She is deservedly a legend in a profession of many heroes.

What bothers me about this book is that it not only pictures the brutality of the Assad regime and the murder of innocent civilians, but it also makes the Syrian resistance fighters, particularly the Free Syrian Army into heroes. In a sense that is true: lightly armed forces defending their territory against a brutal aggressor. What Conroy doesn’t remind us of, however, is how the Syrian civil war began. Assad was faced with a peaceful uprising and, predictably, I would say, chose to use force to put it down. In response members of the army, police and security services defected and formed armed resistance groups, including FSA. Opposition to Assad was highly fractured, however, and there was never much chance of a unified opposition. The subsequent history of the conflict, in which the siege of Homs was an early episode, is one of calamity for Syria and its people.

My question is why resort to armed resistance? Was there an alternative? We see this again and again across the world, and the consequences are never anything but misery for most of the people caught up in the conflict. Marie Colvin’s dispatches could have just as easily come from Gaza, during one of the so-called “defensive” attacks by the Israeli army (which their generals refer to as “mowing the lawn,” according to The Guardian, 7 January 2019). They could come from the Saudi war in Yemen, to cite another current conflict.

Reports like those of Colvin and Conroy too often offer us easily identifiable villains. Someone in the book expressed the hope to see Assad and his government in the dock at the International Criminal Court. That at least would be justice, but graphic accounts of war crimes make us hope to see the villain blasted to bits or executed like Muammer Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. So long as those in power know this is how we feel, they will do everything to avoid having to give up. The one instance I can think of where a brutal regime gave way to a fairly stable democracy is South Africa, where somehow the white leadership was convinced that it was safe to yield to black majority rule.

What do the people of the Middle East have to do to become convinced that they can settle political, social and economic and break down barriers, without the other side trying to destroy them? The problem is that the United States, Russia and China continue to rely mainly on threats of violence and take sides in these regional conflicts. The solution has to begin with the most powerful players.

As I quoted in an earlier post about militarization of environmental conflict:

[militarized approaches to conflict lead to] “antagonistic interactions, of the kind that now plague the Middle East and parts of Africa. Small countries are led to play the game because of the fear, too often realized, that stronger powers, and especially, superpowers, will simply impose their will by threat or violence (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) It also encourages destructive insurgencies, leading ultimately to collapse of states (Somalia, Libya, Syria, Lebanon) …Without structures of genuine equity, supported by collective guarantees and a system of settling disputes that doesn’t rely primarily on crippling sanctions, threats and force, we will not see much progress towards protecting our earth’s life-support systems.”

and I would add the protecting lives of vulnerable human beings.

 

Looking for the Logos of Lucre III: a new gospel of wealth?

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. Knopf, 2018.

A timely book, especially in light of the recent announcement by Jeff Bezos of Amazon that he plans to raise wages for his lowest paid workers. It is a modern critique of the modern version of the Gospel of Wealth, enunciated by Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, in the 1890s. He argued that the rich could best disperse their large fortunes by philanthropy. In his case this included endowing Carnegie Libraries in many cities, along with Carnegie Hall, museums, universities, etc.

Today, we see many high tech and hedge fund billionaires and others among the super rich proposing to tackle poverty, disease, oppression and the like through philanthropic foundations. Giridharadas focuses his book on the people who operate this world of large scale largesse, many of whom come from the financial firms that enable the accumulation of these vast fortunes to begin with. People like Bill Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative, the president of the Ford Foundation and a young woman from an elite university starting her career with a financial firm that emphasizes “doing well by doing good.” They form what Giridharadas calls “MarketWorld,” an elite network of global activities, ranging from Davos World Economic Forumto TED talks that bring the rich and powerful together with “Thought Leaders.” Together these people push market friendly solutions to global challenges, “win-win” solutions that are intended to substitute for political action.

Giridharadas questions the motivations of these people and in interviews that make up much of the book, shows that many of them have their own doubts. The big question is the same one asked of Carnegie: given that you made your fortune through ruthless business practices, holding wages at near starvation levels, and so on, why not give it back to the people you took advantage of? What good is a library to a man who has to work fourteen hours a day, six days a week to feed his family? Thus as one editorial asked Jeff Bezos: if you want to fight problems like poverty, why not start by paying Amazon workers a living wage? Maybe he got the message.

The problem is, it’s mostly about power. As Thomas Hobbes says in Levithan, Chapter XI, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Wealth is power, and the desire to have the exercise of that power must be nearly irresistible. Carnegie was sure he knew better than his workers what would improve their lives. Likewise, the modern philanthropists of MarketWorld believe that they can do better than governments solving national or global problems. Given our present political situation, they may appear to be right. But consider: the present weakness, indecisiveness and corruption of government is in large part a product of the success of the wealthy in weakening government by starving it of revenue and shifting policy in favor of finance and the rich. They accomplished this by pouring some of their wealth in campaign coffers and lobbying. Reduced social welfare, crumbling infrastructure, unequal and costly education, stagnant minimum wage – all brought about at the behest of the rich and their tax cutting political friends in office. Along with the weakening of organized labor, it’s no wonder there are lots of social problems for MarketWorlders to propose win-win solutions for.

The privatization of education is a dream of the market types, and they are using their influence in government to make it come true. Because young people will be better off, or because it is a gigantic stream of revenue they can capture? What will this do to the democratic idea of public education, the transmission of not just basic skills but of a core of common values deemed essential to good citizenship in a republic? And what about the larger loss of democratic control of the policies and practices that affect our lives? Should plutocrats and their Thought Leader minions decide what the choices will be? Are solutions that are not marketable to be excluded? Look at the problems of delivering goods like healthcare in a for profit environment. Giridharadasand the people he talks to are clearly made uneasy by these questions.

Giridharadas has interesting thoughts on the people we used to call Public Intellectuals versus contemporary Thought Leaders: Public intellectuals, he says tended to focus on those who created the problems they discussed, the looked at issue from a political viewpoint and they often defined problems without speculating on solutions. Many could be described as gadflies or a kind of public conscience. They were generally found in academia, the public press or publishing.

Thought Leaders, Giridharadassays, don’t look at perpetrators, they see problems as personal, arising from individual shortcomings or disabilities, not as a result of public policies. They are expected to have a very big idea and to focus on “actionable solutions,” meaning those that can be incorporated in a business plan. They offer their proposals at TED talks, elite conferences or on the high paid speaker circuit. Their appeal is not to the socially and politically aware public, but to the elite, to whom they offer plans of action that they promise will have large effects and generate profit for the bottom line.

While I still think there are public intellectuals around, I agree that their influence, such as it was, has been overshadowed by these new thinkers, who serve MarketWorld. Political leaders now gravitate in the same direction, and the neglect of the concerns of those who live their lives in the everyday world has led us to the increasingly bitter political situation we find ourselves in.

People want leaders who are accountable to them, even if they don’t always do a good job of holding them to account. Elites who stand above politics, which they can influence with their money and the revolving door jobs they control, have failed to grasp this this. Philanthropy is fine, but when my concerns, interests and dignity are being taken away and I begin to feel more and more powerless, I am not going to feel happier for it. It’s time to reassert the basic notion that we are all in this together. It isn’t “your money,” when it took all of us working to make your success possible. And if your success is founded on decades of change in favor of the fortunate few, it’s even worse that you alone get to decide how to use it. As Giridharadas puts it at the end, “Where do we go from here?…somewhere other than where we have been going, led by people other than the people who have been leading us.”

Discordant Visions

The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

I listened to the Audible edition, which was read with a great effort to sound dramatic and to pronounce every foreign name or word with a perfect accent, both of which I found distracting.

What is the right term for the series of issues that came to public attention in the last half of the 20th century? That is, those that involved the increasing human population, economic growth and intensive exploitation of the natural world, climate change, pollution, etc? Collectively, they can be characterized as “environmental,” but to say this was the era of environmentalism doesn’t exactly fit. Many of those involved would reject the label, “environmentalist,” seeing themselves as biologists, economists, social scientists, or ecologists in the narrow, scientific sense. The older label, “conservationist,” would fit some, but not all those involved. I don’t have an answer to the problem of saying in a word what this book is about.

Mann tries to sum up the tensions and perplexities of this broad historical phenomenon by following the lives and careers of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. The first was a conservationist in the old sense, involved with groups like Audubon and author of an influential book in the late 1940s, Road to Survival, a neo-Malthusian polemic on population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. He was a major influence on Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the book often cited as the major impetus behind Earth Day 1970. The second was a midwestern born and educated plant breeder who developed wheat resistant to stem rust and then added further improvements that greatly increased yields. First in Mexico, then in other developing countries, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this work became the basis of the green revolution, and Borlaug received a Nobel prize.

Mann treats these contrasting stories as exemplars of the familiar dilemma: can science and technology allow us to keep expanding human demand, or do we need to reduce demand, primarily by stopping population growth and cutting our per capita consumption? He considers this in relation to four domains that he labels earth, air, fire and water, that is, food and agriculture, climate change, energy generation and water supply. For each he describes the “wizard,” approach – Borlaug – and the “prophet,” approach – Vogt. He takes us through technological solutions being developed by modern day wizards, and then tells us the views of modern day prophets, who say these solutions won’t work and who propose “greener,” more “sustainable” solutions of their own. At the end, he attempts a synthesis, but it is not clear whether there is a way to reconcile such starkly contrasted views. What I found interesting was not so much the contrast as the similarity between their conceptions of the way through the difficulties, or even catastrophes, they envisioned. Both saw the critical decisions as coming from the top, through national or international governing bodies, staffed by experts, although the experts in the two cases would be applying very different principles.

The trouble with this is that such solutions quickly lose sight of human values like equity and freedom. The green revolution greatly increased food supplies, but also largely destroyed small farmers’ lives and led to the growth of the developing world’s mega cities, with their sprawling shanty towns. Attempts to rein in growth often seem to place the heaviest burdens on the poorest people, while protecting the lifestyles of the already well off. At best, affluent folk get a steady bombardment of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda, along with promotions for exotic ecotourism destinations.

Economic liberalism and the global market economy have no use for restraint, so if there are limits to growth, it’s hard to see how the free market society can avoid hitting up against them. If there aren’t any limits, as many still insist, at least in the immediate future, does that mean we should continue to allow things to develop? In an earlier post, Climate Change, Equity and Security, I considered how a sustainable future might be possible, if more attention were given to equity in development, through the imposition of clear and simple limits (on speed, on emissions, etc.) to restrain the growth of inequity and waste, while leaving room for individual freedom and innovation. Likewise, efforts to constrain the growth of economic inequality could also ease some of the current threats to the global environment. Poverty seems to me to be a major driver of population growth, because it delays the demographic transition that rich countries have gone through.

People certainly need the vision, knowledge and advice of scientists like Borlaug and Vogt, but I’m not sure that they alone can offer solutions to the complicated collection of problems that result from human flourishing on Earth. The economic miracle of the green revolution, coupled with humanity’s incredible endurance, has enabled us to escape the catastrophe that Vogt foresaw, but it seems very clear to me that sooner or later we will exhaust nature’s resilience and human patience. Whether it is grain, meat, cars or human souls, more can’t always be better. We need to think more deeply about what we really need from the Earth and how, as free people, we can sustain our life together.

Despite the limitations of his either/or framework, Mann makes the stories of these two men interesting enough for a good read. You can enjoy those parts of the book, and skip the earth, air, fire and water, if you like.