Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Abandonment, nostalgia and the technology of human landscapes

In the coming weeks I will be "checking in" on my understanding of how environmental thinkers have regarded technological development.  I had started writing on this theme a couple of years ago.  This is what I have so far on this theme.
In Italo Calvino’s fable Baron in the Trees the young Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò retreated from a family dinnertime squabble and took to the trees vowing never to return to the ground again. His act, a reversal of the flow of human evolutionary history, brought the impetuous baron back to humanities’ primordial dwelling-place. This recapitulation necessitated compromises. The baron abandoned his tunics, his stockings, his powdered coiffure (the year is 1767), and over the course of the years he modified his habits and equipped himself for life in the canopy. Reacclimatizing to the ancestral habitat his body warped and, by the end of his long life, he may not have been able to return to solid ground even had he chose to do so. The baron’s retreat was merely an extreme gesture in the relationship between people and primeval landscapes – a relationship defined by abandonment and the subsequent scramble for adaptation. It is a simultaneously optimistic and nostalgic affair. Accommodating our relationship with landscapes of the past, the abandoned wilderness from which we created our modern human landscapes is one of the challenges of our times. The prospects and problems associated with loss of wildness are inarguably a legacy of technology. Whether or not technology can assist us in solving the problems that technology created remains a matter for debate. Up for debate also is whether the protection of the wild can be assisted by technology.

Despite the many excellences of the human body – the dexterous grip of the hand, the engineered precision of stereoscopic vision, the marvels of bipedality, the hitching of gristle and flesh to gracile but sturdy bones, the preposterous engorgement of the human brain – we are nevertheless no more than adequately provisioned for the physically taxing world in which we live. We are creatures – rare when considering the sweep of creation – trapped between the heavens and the earth: confined to the surface of the soil. To take possession of a new habitat, or even to retreat to one from our past (as seen in the case of the baron), is achieved only with great difficulty. The primeval human animal, newly descended like a tremulous god from the canopies of east African forests, was a succulent, vulnerable thing. The irredeemably terrestrial nature of our lungs yields the aquatic realm unlivable to us. The interstices of the soil, snug and receptive to perhaps a majority of living things, are not a home for the hulking hominid. A glance overhead at birds and insects (and the occasional mammals) is to peer into a distance world. And we are an undefended and doubtlessly a tasty morsel – a fact attested to by our sociality (primate vulnerability, it seems, loves company). Despite human physical limitations we have extended our reach to all of these seemingly foreclosed worlds. We have plumbed the depths of the oceans, flown through the atmosphere, and penetrated deep within the earth. The means by which we have overcome these limitations is through our capacity for technology.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Heart and the Beard: a surgical story told mainly in aphorisms (of 140 characters or less)

To celebrate the end of summer and my imminent return to work I am reproducing the story of my descent into and ascent from cardiac hell earlier this season.

To Vassia, best friend and partner in matters of the heart!

Context: The young doctors who had been prodding me a day or so after an appendectomy ran alarmed from my hospital bedside to call in a senior consultant.  As a consequence of the high temperature I was running, a heart murmur, presumably there since birth, sounded especially pronounced.  Each beat was followed by the acoustic swish of blood plashing back into the chambers of my heart.  A follow up with a cardiologist in Dublin confirmed that the aortic valve was defective (stenotic and regurgitative) and that, at some point in my life, it would need to be replaced.  I doubted this.  The year was 1978; I was fifteen years of age.  This, coincidentally, was also the year I grew my first beard.  A fine display of very fine chin-hair; I have sported aggressive facial hair since that time.

Though I doubted that my heart would ever need attention (I felt immortal in those days), nevertheless, I had my various doctors through the years examine it.  In the mid 1990s a doctor in Georgia, one whose name reminded me of non heart-healthy products, told me that without immediate surgery I would die.  The news was a jolt and so consternated my beloved that she got her one and only parking ticket as we ruminated upon this news in Jittery Joe’s in Athens.  Follow up examination revealed that the EKG leads used in that heart test had been switched round and the doctor had been seeing my heart inverted – the ventricles seemed atrophied and my atria appeared to be perched on that malformed muscle like outsized berets.

At the end of last year while traveling in India with students I  experienced some difficulties that retrospectively appeared to have been signs of congestive heart failure.  Subsequent visits with my physician, my cardiologist and my cardio-thoracic surgeon resulted in my going in for an aortic valve replacement on May 10th 2011.  Typically, I wait for years before writing about personal events; however, I had been tweeting on the topic in the weeks running up to this surgery, and had provided some commentary on the subsequent and ongoing recovery.  During the week of the surgery, a relatively miserable one, I had been digitally silent; however, I jotted down some observations which I now reproduce as part of this twitobiography (“The Missing Tweets”). In reviewing this output I noticed that my beard and my heart, twinned since my teen years, had co-starring roles in this little drama. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Isha Upanishad – or, Tale of Badger

Liam Heneghan

Bone on white rocks stays cool under an overcast sky.  When I picked up the skull I knew it was Badger’s because of the crest on the skull and because of the teeth.  This animal with large muscles hitched from jaw to skull can bite until it hears a bone break.  This is what I had been told and having no reason to disbelieve it I carried a stick with me when I walked alone.  If Badger bit, I would break the stick and he would let go.  Here was his skull now, strewn with many other bones on white boulders at the edge of the lake.  It was late afternoon and there was no smell but the smell of the sea, and the sea was miles away.

I progressed along the path and though I knew the evening was coming I walked out towards the mountains instead of turning for home as perhaps I should have.  For a while the lake was never far away, and neither were the trees but after a mile or so I came out from among the trees and walked along the mountain path.  On both sides of the path was bogland and I paused and looked over the vegetation and saw, not far away, a river flowing into the lake.  It had been raining so the river was full.  When I looked back I was facing Badger.  We both stopped on the path and we looked at one another; neither of us moved. For a long time we looked at each other.  I was afraid of Badger and Badger I could tell was fearful of me, so neither of us moved and neither of us looked away.  The sun was going down and the river was loud in the dusk.  Flanking Badger on the path I watched the breeze stir the plants and saw the tufts of bog cotton twitch like the heads of elderly minuet dancers spinning elliptically on a single spot.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Making Nature Whole - William Jordan III's new volume

At last Bill Jordan's book "Making Nature Whole" is out from Island Press (see here).  He and coauthor George Lubick have worked on this for several years.  It traces the roots of the idea of restoring nature for its own sake - not for its services, not for its "goods", but for the sake of nature whole and intact with all its beauty and its problematic aspects (after all, despite the loving attention that we may pay to the things of nature, nature will always have the last laugh, and will even provide the worms to harass us in our graves!).  Jordan recognizes, of course, that this is a problematic idea - even selflessness is selfish if you look at it with the appropriate spectacles.  This post is not to review but merely to announce.  We at DePaul University will host a launch in the coming months.  I will post details when I have them.  And I would also like to arrange a seminar on the book in winter.  Let me know if you are interested and I'll keep you posted on that too.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Neither here nor there – the man who paints motion: A reflection on the drawings of Peter Karklins

Roman Opalka (1931-2011), detail
It was at a little café on Webster. Every so often I glanced at the artist in our company: one of those young fellows for whom the past is not a burden and who care not a whit about the future.  He was frustrated by our unwillingness to pose for him. His pencil worked the paper tablecover – he listened but did not participate in the conversation, and all the time he was adding his marks on the makeshift canvas as if capturing the exchange.  When we got up to leave I examined the work – he had drawn our group over and over again in a way that seemed to gain possession of movement.  “Kinetic art”, we christened it.  That artist developed the technique no further; I hear that he is a mathematician now.

People move, nature riots, the earth spins, the stars fall in the void, and yet a single remarkable thing can stop us in our tracks.  Motion and stillness, passing through and settling down: the poles of our animal existence.  Edward Casey, the philosopher, argued that motion and stasis bracket the dimensions of dwelling.  Hermetic dwelling, with the very wings of Hermes on our heels, propels us through the streets of our home town.  Hestial dwelling has us curled up back at the hearth.  We need buildings and we need thoroughfares – places to rest and routes through which we can flee.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Potatoes and The Irish Pre-famine Population

A couple of days ago I posted on Ken Connell, the Irish economic and social historian whose conclusions about the Irish population before the Great Famine remains influential and controversial.  I posted a longer piece on the topic at 3quarksdaily…  Read it here

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Professor K H Connell and Irish pre-famine population statistics

I have been spending a good bit of the past week thinking about Irish pre-famine population statistics.  I am hoping it will be a good case-study for students in the coming months as teaching gets going again.  I will also post on these matter more extensively at on Monday, assuming I can finish.  What's at stake here are demographic explanations of the rise in population in Europe in the 18th century - the beginning of the modern population boom, one that has resulted in our expecting to be 7 billion strong world-wide by Oct 2011. 

Sixty one years ago Professor Ken Connell of Queen's University Belfast declared that Ireland's population increase in the same period (the 18th century) was for reasons other than those reported from Europe (he speculated that the Irish married very young, whereas the explanation in Europe was that mortality declined).  However, subsequent scholarship has largely (not completely) reversed that assertion, bringing Ireland into conformity with the rest of Europe.

Connell had been a pioneer of Irish social and economic history and chaired his department there for a while.  A querulous sort, apparently he did not get along well with his colleagues at Queen's and was removed from his leadership role.   He died on 26 September 1973, aged fifty-six, "exhausted and dispirited".  In his obituary of Connell a colleague, Micheal Drake, wrote: "Certainly in all the years I knew him he budged but little on any issue. Perhaps if he could have done so on those often seemingly trivial non-academic issues which troubled him so much, especially in recent years, he would be with us still."  Sad stuff.   On a cheerier note Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University (whose office is a few blocks from where I write) and Cormac Ó Gráda from University College Dublin (whose office was a few buildings away from where I worked in the 1980s) concluded a more recent review of the Irish population with the comment: “Post-famine demographic patterns have fascinated and puzzled researchers too, but it must be said that as yet they have not produced a Connell.  As for the period surveyed here, three decades of debate have not exhausted the questions raised by Connell.”

For graphs on Irish Population right before the Great Famine see here

Michael Drake (1974) "Professor K. H. Connell"  Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 73 (Mar., 1974), pp. 83-85

Joel Mokyr and Cormac Ó Gráda (1984) New Developments in Irish Population History, 1700-1850 The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 473-488
C. J. Woods. "Connell, Kenneth Hugh". Dictionary of Irish Biography.
(Eds.)James Mcguire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom:Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Friday, August 19, 2011

An Ascetic Encounter: Oisín the bard and Saint Patrick at the source of the Dodder

For Oisín Heneghan, an exemplary contemporary Oisín

The River Dodder, a significant stretch of water that arises at Kippure in the valley of Glenasmole, Co. Wicklow, travels twenty-six kilometers through the Dublin suburbs before joining its more significant cousin, the River Liffey, at Ringsend.  Together these rivers, along with other lesser streams and brooks, move Dublin’s detritus out to sea.  On its way, the Dodder passes through Templeogue Village, where I grew up, a town which the suburban expansion of Dublin caught up to and washed over in the 1950’s as the city surged in the opposite direction towards Tallaght, and on towards Wicklow, leaving behind alluvial deposits in the form of barely distinguishable estates of semi-detached houses banked up against the cottages, churches, and the forgotten antiquities of much earlier times.  Some mornings queuing for a bus into the city center the sweet smell of pig-shite would catch in the throat, emanating from the little piggery down near the river, down where the village seems a little older, more primordial. 
A seemingly benign and even-tempered river, the Dodder recouped some of its old boisterousness on the 25th of August 1986, when Hurricane Charley (called Charlie in  Dublin) dumped several inches of rain into the catchment.  It was the night of my younger brother Padraic’s twenty-first birthday and our family, along with many others from the village, stood close to the bridge over the Dodder that connected us to the rest of South Dublin, watching the water rise close to the roof of the new bridge.  The Dodder has never been kind to its bridges.  Whole trees were swept along that night.  And over the years the river has carried many an unwary traveler to their watery end during such unexpected swells.

Those turbulent waters that we viewed that night traveled the same course as did the waters where, legend has it, St Patrick Christianized one of the last great Irish pagans, Oisín the bard.  Indeed, many of the tales of the Ossianic cycle, that is, the tales of Finn mac Cumhaill and of his son Oisín, after whom the tales are named, (after whom, indeed, my youngest son is named), take place in Glenasmole.  These are also called the Fenian Cycle after the Fianna, the legendary warriors that Finn led.  The events associated with these stories supposedly took place in the Third Century A.D.  T.W. Rolleston in his influential account in Celtic Myths and Legends (1917) suggested that the modern critical reader “will soon see that it would be idle to seek any basis of fact in this glittering mirage.” [i] Even if one concedes the point to Rolleston, one must also concede that the tales remain instructive to that same critical reader; the folk memory of the Fianna remains strong.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Irish Republic Population 1901-2006

These data from the Irish Central Statistics Office (where I worked briefly as a Clerical Assistant in the mid-80s) reveal the well known decline of the Irish population from the early years of the 20th C till the mid-sixties.  In fact, the year of my birth seems to coincide with a revival of Ireland's population.  I suppose I should not read to much into this. 

In recent years population growth rate has been brisk - >2% per annum . The high rate derives from high birthrates (driven by a large youthful population, and until very recently high immigration.  The fertility rate is quite low at less that 2 kids per woman.

Before and After the Great Famine: census data from 1821 to 1911

I spent part of the morning looking at Irish census statistics from 1821 to 1911.  There is quite a treasure trove of archived census reports at  Two main stories interest me here (see the accompanying graph; I took the data from the facsimiles of the census reports).  There first concerns the very rapid rise in the population from the early 1700s to right before the Great Famine  (in Irish “an Gorta Mór” – the Great Hunger), attested to in the graph by the rise from 1821 to 1841. There have been some interesting theories about this sharp increase.  The second phenomenon, one more commonly inspected, is the century long decline in the population after the famine (1 million dead and a pattern of emigration that continued till relatively recent times).  The declines between 1941 and 1911 are quite amazing:

Leinster Munster Ulster  Connaught Total
Decline (%) 41% 57% 34% 57% 46%

The Great Famine has attracted the attention of environmental demographers some of whom have seen in it the disaster predicted by the Rev Malthus.  I will be spending a little recreational time inspecting the Malthusian literature on the Famine in the coming days, and hopefully will post on on Monday next on this topic.

Feel free to comment - I will be thinking this through over the coming days and trying to find a useful way of summarizing it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Learning to be as strange as the rest of nature

The period since the retreat of the glaciers of the Pleistocene, geologically termed the Holocene, has persisted for the past 12,000 years.  It is the relatively stable regime in which the social-ecological systems of the world have developed.  Poor management of the climatic, edaphic, hydrological and other ecosystem feedbacks that maintain this state may result in a critical transition to a less desirable state (at least from the perspective of many humans).  Indeed, we may have already transitioned from the Holocene to the unambiguously human-dominated era of the Anthropocene.  On first inspection this account seems to add little to what many concerned environmental thinkers have been saying for quite some time.  However, it recasts the ecological crisis in geological terms (though Paul Ehrlich has been employing similar devices for decades).  Humans will need to be thought of not only alongside other species but alongside ecological entities as diverse as tectonic plates, volcanoes and hurricanes.   

In future posts I will review recent developments in ecosystem thinking, emphasizing "resilience thinking" as a way of positioning concerns about the entities of ecological thought alongside accounts of the temporality of nature.  Contemporary ecology offers tools for analyzing events which may not result in changing the characteristic functioning of systems (in the way that a small rain event little perturbs a system) and for analyzing those events that tip a system into previously un-encountered states (in a way that a hurricane may radically restructure a system).  Do such recent developments in ecology as a science, or the realization that we may now be in the Anthropocene present something new for a consideration of environmental ethics.  In particular, can the ascetic gestures that characterized late 20th C approaches to sustainability that are cast in terms of withdrawal from the world, for instance, as footprint reduction, simple living and so forth (often appropriate as far as they go) be reframed in terms of a more positive engagement with environing world?  Knowing that to be human is to both alter and be altered by the world; can we invent an ethic of engagement? Can be learn, in other words, to be merely as strange as the rest of nature?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sneak Peek at 100 Sites Map

This cool map is from the 100 sites project (100 1 hectare research sites in the Chicago Wilderness region where researchers and ecological managers are collaborating on long term evaluation of restoration activities).  David Wise from University of Illinois Chicago, and I are PIs on this Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation funded project.  Lauren Umek is project manager and has overseen the work on all of the sites. The map was prepared by Alex Ulp.

A human as terrifying as a volcano – a scribbled note on resilience thinking

Environmental inquiry as scientific and philosophical subdisciplines benefits and suffers from its overlap with popular conceptions of the workings of nature.  On the one hand even relatively arcane observations from environmental scholars can be of interest to a lay public and can influence public policy.  On the other hand, persistent and popular misconceptions may conflict with emerging research perspectives in a manner that can be confusing and frustrating for environmental practitioners.  For example, although the term Balance of Nature means very little to researchers the notion is persistent among a broader public and can serve as a faulty map to environmental practice.

Ecology in the 20th Century had two central themes.  One theme concerned to identification of objects of ecological thought and enquired about the processes that sustained them long enough, at least, for us to examine them.  This perspective brought us populations, communities, ecosystems, Gaia and so forth, and employed cybernetics, systems thinking, hierarchy theory and other mechanistic tools to understand their persistence.  The other major theme in ecology stressed the dynamics of nature – how do the objects of nature change over time (for convenience we will call this “succession”.)  Now, though it does some injustice to the complexity of positions at any one time over the past hundred years, it is plausible to state that in the early years of the last century ecologists emphasized the progressive nature of ecological change, the stately development of communities from their creation (after a volcano, say) through a series of prescribed steps until the achieved their mature form (a “climax community”).  And this mature stage persisted as long as it is not disturbed (especially by humans).  By the late century such schemes were out of favor and ecological thought was more concerned with disturbance and disruption.  Though systems may develop, succession was no longer seen as quasi-ontogenetic.  In this scheme humans were not the only disruptive (or creative) forces influencing the behavior of ecological systems.  Although ecologists in the late 20th C had largely abandoned an understanding stressing the progressive development of steady state, close-to-equilibrium, climax communities, this view remains forceful in popular conceptions of ecology.

These historical developments are well enough known.  However, the recent interest in “resilience thinking”, a set of models that stem from the work of C S Holling and other, collectively attempt to explain the patterns of stability and change, that is, to reconcile accounts of stable-states and disruption have implications that are insufficiently examined.  The significance of resilience thinking for examining human activity derives from the fact that the inquiry places as much emphasis on the capacity of systems to absorb disturbance as it does upon the potential for catastrophic change when a system is pushed passed its limits: that is, resilience thinking can allow us to imagine ourselves as “well-behaved” systems components, as well as elements that tip the systems into brilliant and/or terrifying new states.  So resilience thinking is a framework that accommodates thinking about the disruption of ecological system behavior in response to hurricanes, forest fire, and human disruption, all with the same tools.  In resilience thinking humans look like nature.  Looking like nature expels neither the horror nor the joy from the human project.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Understanding the patterns of rarity of vulnerable species: some background

Why is this important? The identification and protection of rare species remains central to the task of conservation.  However, conservationists now know that there are several quite distinctive ways in which species can be rare.  In addition not all forms of rarity are equally significant for regional conservation planning.  Translating the different meanings of rarity into appropriate policy directives at a local scale requires research into both the patterns of rarity and the mechanisms that distinguish rare species from common ones.

Text Box: “IUCN categories of threat (Endangered, Vulnerable, Rare, Indeterminate, and others) are widely used in `Red lists' of endangered species and have become an important tool in conservation action at international, national, regional, and thematic levels. The existing definitions are largely subjective, and as a result, categorizations made by different authorities differ and may not accurately reflect actual extinction risks.” (Mace and Lande 1991)Rarity is an important correlate of extinction vulnerability (one of a number of such correlates, it should be noted) (Davies et al. 2000); that is, rare species are more likely to go extinct than common ones.  Rare species are therefore afforded special attention in conservation circles (Lawler et al. 2003).  The familiar policy terms endangered, threatened, vulnerable species, rely heavily on rarity for designating extinction risk.  It is, however, an ecological truism that rarity is common.  This important concept alludes to the fact that a relatively few species may be abundant in an assemblage, but the  majority of species are rare, often being represented by as few as a single specimen in ecological surveys (Preston 1948, Magurran and Henderson 2003).  For example oak and hickory species typically dominate in an Oak Woodland, whereas most other species in the will occur in relatively low numbers.  Since most species are not commonly encountered, it is clearly useful to distinguish species that are inherently rare (those species whose relative rarity is related to, for example, its life history strategy and may therefore have a stable, non threatened population) from those that are both rare and vulnerable to immanent extinction (Maina and Howe 2000).  For instance, a species that is has a small population but which has a low variability in their populations numbers, rarely fluctuating from year to year, may have a reduced risk of extinction (Pimm et al. 1988)

The determination that a rare species has a conservation priority status should be based on objective criteria (Ledant 1991, Mace and Lande 1991).  Delineating the type of rarity being addressed in a given conservation strategy can be a crucial criterion.  Both research and action that promotes rare species conservation must carefully also consider the issue of the geographical scale on which rarity is assessed (Fagan et al. 2005).  A species with scarce populations in one area may be geographically widespread and may therefore not be regarded as having as high a priority as a species with small population in a very restricted geographical range.  With this is mind, it is important that conservation reserve selection and design procedures that employ rarity as a decision criterion are implemented with a sensitivity not only to local needs but also takes the regional context into consideration (with a view to maximizing regional diversity) (Rodrigues and Gaston 2002).  Such sensitivity to the multiple scales contributing to rarity is embedded in recent attempts to classifying different types of rarity. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Introducing a gray area: Foucault’s indebtedness to Nietzsche’s genealogical method

This post being primarily a comment on Michael Foucault’s Nietzsche, Genealogy, History[i]

'I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area... I would like the little volume that I want to write on disciplinary systems to be useful to an educator, a warden, a magistrate, a conscientious objector. I don't write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.'  Michel Foucault, (1974) 'Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir' in Dits et Ecrits, vol. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 523-4.[ii]

What kind of tool-box? 

Foucault’s text Nietzsche, Genealogy, History is on the threshold.  Methodologically it supposedly inaugurated a new approach for Michel Foucault the one-time archeologist[iii]: before this lies Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medicinal Perception (1963), The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (1966), after this Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality Vols 1-3 (1976-84)[iv].  I stand on the threshold also, with little other than this one methodological text to illuminate a path forward and backwards through the work of Foucault.   That is, though I have spent a reasonable amount of time with several of these volumes, I am a Foucauldian beginner.  But why not initiate an encounter with a writer by way of his methodology?[v]  If Foucault intended his work for users rather than readers, an evaluation of his methods allows us to determine the degree to which we might want to use his scholarly tools.  Indeed if this methodology engendered for Foucault a productive renewal of his work, it is worth enquiring about the resources that genealogy provides him that his archeology could not.  One might also enquire if the ontogeny of the methodology described in Nietzsche, Genealogy, History has its “origin” explicitly in Nietzsche.  At the risk of being too clever, we might however perhaps we might launch this query about Foucault’s methodological “origins” using the very tools made available to us by Foucault.  Ultimately what are Foucault’s debts to Nietzsche?  And what debts should we as latter-day genealogists have to Foucault?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Portuguese Teeth and Skeletal Pathologies – the Agricultural Revolution and the Metaphysics of Decline

Studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers as they transition from traditional to modern lifestyles reveal a marked reduction in their health and in the nutritional adequacy of their newly acquired diets.  In addition to studies on extant populations, in the last few decades there is an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how environmental stressors and limited resources translates into pathologies detectable in ancient bones.  This has led to an especially interesting range of investigations by archeologists on populations before and after the Agricultural Revolution starting over 10,000 years ago.  Studies on the recently settled and on old bones may answer the perplexing question of why after the seeming ecological stability of the ancient human lifestyles (lasting, after all, from 200,000 to a mere 10,000 years ago) did the transition from hunter-gatherer modes of existence to an agricultural lifestyle occur at all?
Trugernanner (1812–1876)

The diet of Australian Aborigines has been reasonably well studied.  The modern self-selected diet of Australian aborigines reflects that of the cattle stations where many lived after the colonization of Australia by White pastoralists.[i]  Accompanying these dietary changes were disimprovements in Aborigine’s health – increased prevalence of hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease in adults was noted, as were low child birth weights, and increased childhood morbidity.  

The traditional diet for aboriginal Ngatatjara people, for instance, in the Western Desert was primarily vegetarian supplemented with small game; hunting was largely unsuccessful despite the effort.  Station diets consisted of flour, meat, sugar (usually consumed in tea) and powdered milk.  There was very little fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, cheese, and butter, though individuals supplemented their diets with “bush tucker” and with purchases from neighboring towns.  Ironically, the food at the stations may have reflected the food priorities of hunter-gathers with the ready availability of meat.  However, in the absence of other food items and the increasingly sedentary nature of their lifestyles and the “emotional stresses associated with dispossession” resulted in declining health.[ii] 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Merleau-Ponty and a Critique of Science

That Merleau-Ponty, among the continental philosophers, was uniquely hospitable to science is a commonplace observation in commentary on his work.  The case for Merleau-Ponty’s porosity to scientific insight can be made by recourse to the footnotes and bibliographies that accompany his major works: completed books, published essays, as well as work set aside or left incomplete at the time of his early death.  Indeed one can argue that the earlier phenomenological work builds upon scientific insights more that the later ontological turn in his work[i].  For instance, “Phenomenology of Perception” (1945) is dense with reference to psychology, physiology, and neurological studies, whereas “The Visible and Invisible” (unpublished at the time of his death in 1961) does not refer to scientific literature (with the exception of some infrequent and glancing references to some major European scientists, for example, Eddington[ii]), building its arguments in dialogue with his own previous work, other philosophers, and with literature.  That being said, his lecture course on Nature shows that even relatively late in his too brief career, he was willing to maintain a connection with the major scientists of his time when the topic called for it.  That lecture course: a meditation of the significance of Nature, a problematic term in many disciplines, balances its account of the philosophical interest in nature in Bergson, Descartes, Kant etc. with a lively account of contemporary theories in biology (in particular, he makes good use of work of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, ethologists who later won the Nobel prize in Medicine for their work in setting the foundations of modern behavioral biology).   Although the lecture notes on Nature complicates a claim that the mature Merleau-Ponty had, in his later career, tempered his regard for scientific resources, nevertheless in his final published essay Eye and Mind starts with a succinct and forceful critique of science. 

Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.  It makes it own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals.  Science is and always has been that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our use.[iii]

Friday, August 5, 2011

Civilization and its contents: how the world’s earliest cities manifest Neolithic carnal excesses

V. Gordon Chile (1892 - 1957)
“Libraries”, Foucault said, “are the habitat of Man.”  I was in a university library when I read this.  It was the Arts library at UCD in Belfield, south of Dublin city center, and I sat there, circa 1985, cloistered from a damp Dublin evening, digesting the dinner of an impecunious scholar – chips and sausage and a tin of mackerel.  The city, the university, the library, the book in my hand, calories from domesticated foodstuff, and even the lifestyle of writer and reader are part of a cluster of innovations that are all relatively recent in the making.  It was all so very civilized.  In fact, city, university, reader and writer, are some of the principles ingredients of civilization. 
Robert Bierstedt, a sociologist, reflected on those items that might serve as indices of civilization; his list is edifying and frustrating.   “Trousers and Bibles”, he said, “-these surely are unmistakable indices of civilization!”  His list  then proceeds by including traditional and less traditional indicators, for instance: “language, literacy, law, soap, paper, the wheel, money, government, religion, science, agriculture, the city, commerce, print, the domestication of animals, the breeding of cattle, the use of milk, the digging stick, the use of the fork, plumbing, dental caries, and even the dry martini.”[i]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A contemporary model of social evolution: an ecological conception of change in the context of the political economy. Johnson and Earle (2000)

Human social arrangements run the gamut from those groups who live largely without the domestication of plants and animals, like the !Kung of the Kalihari Desert, to the global societies of today, heirs, for better or worse, to the consequences of the agricultural, urban and industrial revolutions.  In a previous post I outline an approach developed by Julian Steward to explaining factors driving social evolution and producing this variety of social arrangements.  Julian Steward’s approach to social evolution had the virtue, according to Johnson and Earle, of providing a bridge between social evolutionism and economic anthropology.[i]  The intention of Johnson and Earle's approach is to reconcile “the structural Marxist emphasis of power and the control of resources into a larger, more ecological conception of the political economy as a set of solutions to problems arising in the subsistence economy.”[ii]  Of course contradictions emerge for people between satisfying ecological needs and contribution to political economies.  From an evolutionary perspective social change occurs, say Johnson and Earle, if the benefits to individuals or families participating in new arrangements exceed the cost of participating (assuming, one must suppose, the absence of extreme forms of coercion).  As population density increases, cooperation and group action is inevitability required to solve problems associated with that increase.  Those groups that form “outliers” from the centre of power are those that are outside the “benefit structure” of the political economy.