Thursday, August 30, 2012

African Melancholia: Reading Peter Matthiessen’s African Silence 20 years on

I recently finished reading Peter Matthiessen’s African Silences (1992).  Though it is less celebrated than some of his other books, for instance, The Tree Where Man was Born (1973), The Snow Leopard (1978) or his National Book Award winning novel Shadow Country (2008), nevertheless, it covers essential territory and twenty years after its publication it still deserves to be read.  

African Silences examines a crucial conservation topic, demonstrates the pernicious impacts of humans on dwindling habitat, reveals a slightly fetishized awe of vast empty places, describes the vertiginous horrors of several potential wilderness deaths, applauds the merits of the old ways and traditional peoples, curses bureaucracies, casts its few crumbs of optimism along the way like edible markers on a dark path, and concludes prettily but gloomily.  Of course, it is tremendously depressing.  Which taken altogether is all to say that African Silences is an environmental classic. 

African Silences covers three separate African trips.  The first was to Senegal, Gambia and Ivory Coast in 1978 on a wildlife survey of West Africa with Dr Gilbert Boese, then of Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.  They conclude that animals are fewer in both abundance and diversity than in East Africa.  Though this has long been known, of course, but Matthiessen points out that West Africa is not only more populous than East Africa but that this has been true for a long time.  Therefore he speculates that long-term human impacts may be a factor explaining the depauperate state of Western Africa’s fauna.  The second trip was to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1978 with British ornithologist Alec Forbes –Watson in search of the Congo Peacock (Afropavo congensis).  Though they see the Eastern Lowland Gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and later meet someone who has eaten a Congo peacock, Matthiessen nevertheless leaves without seeing this bird.  The final trip reported on in the book is to the Congo Basin to evaluate elephant populations, the size of which was a contentious matter back then, with Dr David Western.  They concluded that vast areas of forest in south Gabon, south Congo and western Zaire thought to harbor populations of forest elephants have disappeared.  That is, the whole forest has disappeared – destroyed or degraded.  Another observation is that there exists a wide and deep hybridization zone between forest and bush elephants.  Finally, they speculate that rumors of “pygmy elephants” in the forest are more likely to refer to independent juveniles rather than to a separate undescribed tiny elephant species. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

This Just In: Latest Chicago Wilderness "100 Sites" map

The ‘100 Sites’ project draws together multiple natural areas across the region into a replicated natural experiment.  The sites are matched by habitat type (woodland, prairies) and restoration intensity.  

We are doing this  in order to address two main questions:
How effective are current management practices for restoring and conserving biodiversity?  
How effective are current management practices for rehabilitating key ecosystem processes?  

The image above shows the 121 sites that are currently in the system.

The project is managed by Lauren Umek; the PIs are Liam Heneghan and David Wise.  We are collaborating with many managers throughout the region.

This project is funded by the The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, 

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Humanities and the Sciences Squabble for Sustainability’s Soul: First Thoughts

Chicago Wilderness is an environmental consortium with a mission to restore biodiversity and improve the quality of life for people living in the Greater Chicago area.  Their vision is to include one third of Chicago and the surrounding areas in an interconnected network of lands and waterways in order to provide a healthy and sustainable region for people and nature.  Although the sustainability goal of the consortium is focused on environmental outcomes, nonetheless there is recognition of the need to integrate this goal with the economic and social developmental plans for the region. Therefore the 260 member institutions of this sustainability oriented organization includes local, state and federal agencies, large conservation organizations, cultural and education institutions, volunteer groups, municipalities, corporations, and faith-based groups.  Together these organizations commit to four key initiatives: restore nature to health, protect green infrastructure, mitigate climate change, and leave no child inside.  Projects are undertaken through four teams:  education, natural resources, science and a sustainability team.  Representation in team leadership and in working groups are drawn from a range of professions: land managers, research social scientists, ecologists, conservation biologists, planners and so forth.  Many, though not all of course, are scientific in nature.  Few, in contrast, are drawn from humanities.  That is not to say that there are no individuals in the consortium with training in humanistic disciplines; indeed many may have.  Rather what I am contending here is that these individuals are not engaged in the work of Chicago Wilderness in their role as humanists, not, at least, in the way that the scientists are engaged in project work qua scientists.    

The sciences and humanities are often depicted as playing complementary roles in imagining a sustainable future.  However, there may be a competitive edge to their proposed usefulness for planning environmental sustainability.  Which provides the more powerful tools; in turn which should be provided with more resources when plans are being developed?

In some circles there is a perception that the sciences have failed in their task of securing the future.  For instance, In The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, philosopher Bill Vitek and ecologist Wes Jackson interrogate the value of science in facing our current dilemmas.[1]  Their critique of science points to the supposedly unfortunate scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, shaping, as it did, the patterns of thought that facilitated an aggressive exploitation of the Earth’s resources, the large-scale despoliation of habitat, and the loss of diversity both organismic and cultural.  Such a critique can be extended by implicating the sciences in an ongoing complicity with the technological systems that perpetuate environmental problems thus endangering the health of planet and people.  Now Vitek and Jackson are not advocating the humanities as substituting for the sciences in sustainability studies.  Rather they ask: “Why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance based worldview.”  “We are”, they go on to say, “betting that there is an important paradox in all of this: knowledge and insight accumulate faster in the minds of those who hold an ignorance-based worldview…Darting eyes have the potential of seeing more.”  Though, as mentioned, the humanities are not proffered here as the intellectual corner stone of sustainability thinking, whatever else that might be, it certainly ain’t the sciences.  Nonetheless, one might ask whether the resources for designing a sustainable future are not in fact better excavated by the humanistic disciplines rather than dictated by the intellectual traditions of the sciences that created the problems. 

Humanities in Environmental Long-term Planning for Sustainability (HELPS!)

My post requesting assistance in unearthing case studies where the humanities were directly engaged in sustainability planning in cities around the world fell on somewhat deaf ears.  Just let me quickly follow up and renew my call for help.   If the humanities can be broadly defined as “the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts” how are humanists *directly* engaged with the work of sustainability in urban settings? I am not saying that they don't but I do want specific examples of how.., any takers?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Role for The Humanities in Environmental Sustainability?

I am writing a piece on the role of the humanities (let’s say philosophy, literature, religious studies, linguistics, performing arts etc) in fashioning environmental sustainability solutions in cities around the world.  Eventually, I intend to work on this more systematically and develop a suite of case studies, but for now it would be useful to get some input from you on what projects come to mind.  Specifically, I want to learn of projects where the humanities had or are having an impact on implementation of sustainability, even if this is an indirect impact.

I should perhaps point out that I don’t have any real hypothesis here other than an expectation that sustainability benefits from an interdisciplinary approach.  Nor do I think that such approaches are uncommon - I merely want to assemble a roster of projects.  

If you care to comment here or email me a lhenegha at gmail I’d also like to hear on the degree of difficulty encountered in tying to mesh these more humanistic approaches with one emanating from the sciences.

Your help appreciated!

UPDATE 29 August: An update on this project is posted here

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Social Conquest of Earth - Discussion Sept 2012

INCsters – both at DePaul and as part of our extended family: I am going to read E O Wilson new book The Social Conquest of Earth over the next couple of weeks.  I believe it would be worth a discussion when we return to school in early September.  Anyone else interested?  If so, let me know and we can organize a little session.
(I am prepared to purchase a few copies for impoverished students if any of you are interested in joining us….let me know lhenegha at gmail)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Konrad Lorenz and Nazism

In 1973 Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.  In the awards ceremony Professor Börje Cronholm of the Royal Karolinska Institute identified ethology, behavioral physiology in his words, as an important new science.  In addition to its significance for the understanding of lower organisms, insects, birds and so on, Cronholm noted that ethology had had a far-reaching influence on “social medicine, psychiatry, and psychosomatic medicine”.  Ethology, he said will provide us with “new approaches to the human mind, human behavior and human disbehavior.”  Not only had ethology the distinction of being a new discipline, this new discipline could be brought to bear on an understanding of the human condition.  If it were not for the potential for an anthropic shift – that moment when an expert switches from ants, geese, or other organism and opines on the human condition – it would have been unlikely that ethology would have had won a Nobel Prize.[1][2] 

Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), an Austrian, was perhaps the least reluctant of the first generation of ethologists to dare the anthropic shift, translating insights derived from behavioral observations of other animals to humans.  His enthusiasm for the task had some pronounced political implications and his involvement with and contribution to the ideology of National Socialism trailed him for the latter half of his career. 

After the Anschluss, the unification of Austria and German in March 1938, a political union which Lorenz gustily welcomed in letters to several colleagues, he hastened to illustrate the usefulness of ethology in assessing human behavior.  In a paper published in 1940 he hypothesized that both the domestication of animals and, by analogy, of people living in civilized conditions, especially in large cities, sported deficiencies compared with wild types of those species.[3]  People, Lorenz argued, instinctively disincline from the domesticated versions of most species, finding them uglier.  Since the direction in which “big-city humanity” was moving was towards more not less domestication, with all the adherent ugliness and pathology that Lorenz predicted in this, one solution, he argued, was for “the preservation and care of our people of the highest hereditary goodness.”  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rats “R” Us: the Rat-Human comparison in the work of Konrad Lorenz

An unbiased observer from another planet reflecting on human behavior from a perch close enough to capture the broad strokes of human conduct, but far enough away not to sweat the details of our separate behaviors would conclude that we are rats.  Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian co-founder of classical ethology (the evolutionary study of animal behavior), concluded this in his classic 1966 account of aggression in animals including humans called On Aggression.  The extraterrestrial would surmise this based upon the observations that both rats and humans are “social and peaceful beings within their clans, but veritable devils towards all fellow-members of their species not belonging to their own communities.”[1] Our Martian would have more optimism about the future of rats than humans, says Lorenz, since rats stop reproducing when a state-of overcrowding is reached.  We do not.

The comparison of rats to humans is a provocation, one assumes.  Presumably the unflattering parallel was contrived to collar us and press us into remedial action on those aspects of our social behavior considered by Lorenz to be malfunctioning.  At the same time, objective scientist as Lorenz saw himself as being, there had to be something more than invidious comparison at work in the twinning of rat and man.  There must be some ethological meat on these insalubrious bones.  Brown rats, like men, rely on the transmission of experience to other members of the community.  That is, rats learn, rats have culture.  Additionally, and most significantly rats, oftentimes models of cordiality towards their neighbors can “change into horrible brutes as soon as the encounter members of any other society of their own species”.[2] On these counts – rats as startling comparison, rats as cultured, rats as murderers – rats can stand in for humans in speculations about nationalism, war, and other dangerous aspects of human behavior.  Rats have the additional advantage of not directly objecting to being experimented upon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Anthropic Shift – Learning to be Human from Geese and Fishes and Rats

There is a special moment in many works on animal behavior where the author switches from their account of chimps, bees, fishes, geese, rats or another favored organism and tells us what it means to be human.  I call this the anthropic shift.  The behavior of the human animal need not be an area of particular expertise for the author; the switch is presumed to be validated by the evolutionary continuity of humans with other animals.

Animals will have both generic similarities with their evolutionary relatives as well as having attributes that are specific to them alone. Not all behaviors will therefore have direct homologues in species-to-species comparisons.  Humans don’t, for instance, have a direct equivalent to the waggle-dance that bees use to share foraging information with hive-members, nevertheless, since humans also forage and share information symbolically, insight into waggling can be, not implausibly, regarded as useful in speculating about the evolutionary roots of certain human behaviors.  In addition to such general comparisons, studies on animal homologues of quite specific human behaviors are often of particular interest.  The specifics of human mating systems and family structure have been analyzed comparatively with that of related species, chimps, baboons, and macaques for instance. It is in the light of an anthropic shift from apes and monkeys to humans that debates about the “naturalness” of human family arrangements are often assessed, though often irresolvably.  

One of the distinctions of classical ethological research was that its practitioners took the behavior of a wide range of vertebrates very seriously on their own terms (see here for more on classical ethology).   Though it may have been the case that the work was motivated in part by the prospect of an anthropic shift to human behavioral situations, it is nonetheless clear in the work of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the disciplinary founders of ethology, that they were naturalists of an evolutionary bent first and foremost.  The anthropic shift in ethology was armed with years’ worth of cross-species research on specific behavioral processes.  Since their work oftentimes focused on species at some genetic remove from humans, the application to our own predicament is fairly coarse-grained in terms of the behavioral category, e.g. aggressive drives, learning, communication and so on.   That it not to say that their recommendations on the amelioration of less delightful human behaviors, war, for example, is not quite specific, merely that a strength of ethology emerged from its examining a general behavior in the context of its evolution development in a broad range of species.