Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Are we, well.., decadant?

           Speaking as a Canadian and a North American, it is probably safe to say that we are not immune to the political and racial fanaticism that are emerging as disquieting symptoms of social decadence in Europe. Witness the recent debate in Québec over banning the wearing of "ostentatious religious symbols" by employees of public institutions: hospitals, government offices, schools, day cares..

left-wing-populism-in-quebec  (internal blog link)

             Ultimately, one can begin to pose questions about the long term viability of democracy in radically inegalitarian, capitalist / corporatist economies. Already, one begins to see the beginings of this questioning among political scientists:

link - democracy bankrupt?

             One of the things that strikes one as a "sign of the times": the nastiness of political debate. Why such nastiness in supposedly affluent societies where everyone (supposedly) has enough to eat? This may have a rational explanation: empty barrels make the most noise. When political parties have nothing to offer, they go on the attack. This is a way of hiding their intellectual vacuousness and moral bankruptcy: their sole reason for existing is to prop up a dying Old Regime as long as possible. This is the core set of values of reactionary politics, very visible in North America today. Just think of election time "attack" or "negative" ads. Our political leaders, with few exceptions, cannot be positive exactly because they have no proposals, no program founded in a critical analysis of reality. One gets the impression that our democratic institutions are exhausted.

link: noam-chomsky,10-strategies-of-manipulation

              Everywhere a "devil may care" attitude flourishes. Witness the antics recently of Toronto's high living, crack smoking, "man of the people" mayor Rob Ford.

link: character assassination as politics

               Everything which is "virile" - mean spirited, vicious, violent - is lauded. Cynicism is the norm, especially among the young. Many are convinced that all politicians are crooks, something which the Charboneau Commission hearings into corruption in the construction industry in Québec tend to confirm. 

 internal blog links:





                These are dangerous times. It is at such times that the disempowered and the disenfranchised finally opt out of the System and begin searching for Messiahs to save them. This has had terrible consequences in the 20th century. One need only think of the great dictators that century produced: Hitler, Stalin, Mao.. 

                Fascism caught the Left like a bolt out of the blue. Not only had they not predicted it's emergence in the first decades of the twentieth century but they did not really understand it. It is only with the 20 / 20 vision of retrospection, fifty years after its birth, could the Left say that it had some sort of an intellectual handle on fascism. And what we do know is not very encouraging..

                One definition of fascism: the control or seizure of the State by the corporate elite. That sounds like North America today. One need only compare, for example, the Harper government's environmental policies and the desires of the petrochemical industry to see much overlap there is. Harper's environmental policy could have been written in the Oil Patch (cynics say it was). Young people understand things like this viscerally and its corrupting influence both on them and on the political process itself.

                One of the strategies worked out by the fascists early on (program of the Italian fascist party, circa 1920), was what one can call "contemporary populism". Fascism / populism aims to bypass the logical, critical thinking circuits of the brain and tap directly into the reptilian brain.

              Dimetrodon: an early synapsid reptile (Permian era - 275 million years ago)
            Mammals are modern or surviving synapsids. Dimetrodon slumbers in the                    core of our mammalian brains..

           Since reptiles were the earliest terrestrial vertebrates from which the rest evolved, their brains are involved in computing the basic stuff: sex, aggression and flight, the stuff you need to survive but not much more. The rawest, most powerful emotional, instinctive stuff. This is what the fascists aim to tap into. Their males want our women: a traditional motivational ploy of the racist. They want to take over the world. They want to destroy our values and our way of life. Everything is simple, black and white - as befits a small, early model vertebrate brain.

             But the reptile slumbers in all of us (till awakened). The fascist wants to tweak Dimetrodon's tail, stomp on it. They want to connect the raw emotions stimulated and liberated to cues: racial, religious, gender-orientation or political epithets. The goal is to get a knee jerk - unthinking "conditioned" - reflex when the cues are presented. Thus, critical rational thinking - emerging in higher (non-reptilian) brain centers - is bypassed by raw, survival oriented emotion. This was all well spelled out in the first Fascist Party program (circa 1920, Rome). Contemporary North American reactionaries have refined the procedures (many are from advertising firms and corporate funded Right wing think tanks including university profs). More sophistication in programming and delivery but the basic principles are the same. In the third link from the top, Toronto's high-flyin' populist mayor smears - by insinuation - an adversarial journalist with the hate label, "pedophile". The connection is obvious: threat to children (our children!) has been linked to this man, his name and, of course, his future opinions expressed in his columns.

             The reassertion of populism, reactionary politics and even neo-nazi movements is a worrying sign, if the history of the 20th century is any judge...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Is art still possible?

Fascinating reflections on the role of the artist or writer in the contemporary "civlisational crisis" (Edgar Morin, La Méthode).


RE: "tension" (frustration, anger..) felt by the artist:

"Many, many of us hold that tension. At times it bursts, hard days, those. But if we can hold it balanced well enough to articulate, some stunning creative expression emerges. And since mere news stories, research and reports, international conferences, and even the actual experience of profound change seems not enough to break the spell of the economic culture, art that does that - art and poetry, images and metaphors, that cause the "breaks" - may be among our most essential tools in the toolkit of trying to save our basic humanity within the whole that is being torn asunder by those still under the power of the spell."

Art as a survival tool.. Think about that a bit, artists.. It's true, of course. Technology won't save us because technology is, at root, "only" tools. Like computers, technology can only output garbage if you insist on programming it with garbage (false values, idiotic goals). GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out - as the computer programers say.. Will God save us? Judging from what I read in the Old Testament, probably not. God does not seem to tolerate fools for long. That seems to be what the prophets were saying (often, anyway) The Space Brothers? I really, really don't think so. When I place myself in their shoes, I think it would be wiser to see if we are capable of managing SciTech. In other words, wait to see if we are stupid or crazy enough to destroy ourselves. If we survive THEN they will contact us (?)

If one defines religion as the dialogue of wo/man with the universe (or God/dess), then art as defined in this article may be seen as a spiritual or religious activity, mooring us or situating us in the Cosmos. Latin: religio - obligation, bond, reverence; religare - to bind fast, to moor (a boat).

"Art and writing have within them a mission to clear the fog, to offer a clear view, through the kinds of images and metaphors and stories that cut through the deceptions of the culture and blow the thick clouds away. We may not like what we see, but it may be good to remember that we will not only see what we most fear - that awful need to change everything - not only what is grim and hopeless, but also the sunrise, the stars in the night sky, the horizons, the beauty, the magnificence of this Creation - along with the path that could heal even the worst of the wounds we have inflicted.

The whole of the planet and all of humanity are in a time of transition. The evidence is everywhere and it is clear. An epoch is ending, no matter how desperately we cling to it. The extremes of weather these recent years ought to wake us to something. Let's not be afraid to say what that is."


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy

The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 2007, 181 pages).

A dangerous book? Green and fascist: are ecology and democracy incompatible?
Contains index, footnotes, exceedingly well documented. Part of the Praeger Politics and the Environment series.

The authors are environmentalists, academics, authors, physician, scientist, lawyer, philosopher - definitely not people to dismiss - which renders the book the more dangerous, being signed by such (apparently) credible witnesses. They are committed environmentalists with quite a few notches on their guns. The book begins with the unoffensive dedication:

"This book is dedicated to all who work for a truly equitable and environmentally sustainable world"
The authors then procede to a devastating analysis of "liberalism", democracy and "liberal democracy" showing how they have aided and abetted enivronmental crises: climate change, habitat destruction, etc. Their analysis is cogent and deserves reading and reflection upon. Unfortunately, the authors then procede into a minefield of semantic errors and draw some really dangerous conclusions from their faulted logic:

1- They conflate "liberalism" with "economic liberalism", ignoring the antinomian, paradoxical nature of the latter: unfettered freedom to accumulate leads necessarily to inequality of power / opportunity thus negating the liberal ideology used to justify economic liberalism.

Liberalism: attitude, philosophy, or movement that has as its basic concern the development of personal freedom and social progress.


2- Critique of Democracy. Representative democracy leads to "temporal myopia". Politicians pander to the electorate's basest drives in order to win the next election. In effect, society ends up incapable of thinking or seeing more than four years ahead. Politicians also must pander to corporate power both for campaign contributions and to provide jobs to buy votes. These critiques are, alas, all too true but do they necessarily apply, to such an extreme degree, to decentralized, community based, participatory forms of democracy? The authors make the mistake of painting all forms of "democracy" with the same brush when, in fact, there may be vital differences which need to be explored and exploited for socity's benefit.

3- The authors employ a facile, "common sense", Darwinism-based argument to justify authoritarian, top-down social regulation: authoritarianism is genetically programmed. This is virtually undeniable: man is, after all, a terrestrial vertebrate (mammal) and, at the most primitive level of social behavior should - obviously! - function like other mammals, dduuhhh.. See, for example, Stanley Milgram's pioneering research on "authoritarian compliance":
The authors then go on, from this sociobiological truism to argue, counter-factually, that democracy can't work and that some form of " idealistic authoritarianism" is needed to save the world from greed and plunder

The big "elephant in the room" that these authors ignore is that man is also, almost certainly, "genetically programmed" for face-to-face, participatory, "tribal village democracy". Stop to think about it for a second: why, exactly, did the human capacity for speech arise? Other higher primates don't have this highly evolved, "genetically programmed" capacity for communication through speech. Not the gorilla, nor the chimpanze, nor even the ourang-outang (though they come closest to us in this ability). Speech communication synergistically co-evolved with face-to-face, participatory, "tribal village democracy", the oldest, primordial form of human governance. That is to say, our ancestors were "naturally selected" to speak - and speak well - because group solidarity and group co-ordination, which possess "survival value", are facilitated by the capacity to communicate effectively vocally.

4- The authors blame liberals for the crimes of the neocons (who intensely hate liberals!). Thus the politics of fear of the Bush Administration as well as the abolition of human rights at Guantanamo Bay are laid squarely at the doorstep of "liberalism, liberals, democracy and liberal democracy". This is painting with a broad brush indeed! (The authors' penchant to conflate all these terms together, wily-nily, is itself a warning that a stretch of faulty logic is ahead. It is reminiscent of the Right's tendancy to conflate "liberals", "socialists", "secularists", "humanists", "secular humanists", "atheists", "communists", etc
What I find disturbing about this book is not so much its content or its argument - who among us has not proven wrong-headed on occasion? - but the fact that it is published by Praeger in their Politics and the Environment series: the book is intended to be a serious intellectual contribution to a serious social issue. I can't really blame Praegar though: if this is where we have arrived as a society, so be it! It is the fact that we have actually arrived at this level of intellectual bankruptcy as a civilization that is chilling.
The authors themselves seem relatively "blameless" too. From my reading, they arrived at their tragic conclusions out of desperation at the failure of modern society to halt its headlong rush toward ecological suicide. They appear, in effect, to be decent men acting from good, not evil, intent. And THAT really sends chills up my spine..

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: E O Wilson, The Future of Life

Edward O Wilson: The Future of Life (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 2002) 189 pages, chapter notes (extensive), glossary, index

abbreviations used: EROEI - Energy Return on Energy Investment
                                IMF - International Monetary Fund
                                WB - World Bank
             In writing Future, Wilson adopted the mantle of the Old Testament Prophet: redeem your ways or suffer the wages of your sin! His intentions are admiral but his proposals to rectify our ways are too often based on a faulty or over-optimistic reading of the state of the world, above all, of the human capacity for self-deception. 

            In the course of Future's nearly 200 pages,Wilson delivers a truly damning indictment of the destructive impact of human economic activity on earth's vital "bearing capacity", its ability to sustain life as we know it. As a naturalist, he knows that by degrading the natural world with our excessive numbers and badly designed technology, we are sawing off the branch we are sitting on.

             From a philosophical and moral perspective, particularly the latter, it is hard not agree with his analysis. I particularly appreciated his replies to "hard doomers", fueled by fundamentalist fervor that earth (or humanity) is doomed and nothing we can imagine or do will save us. The former doomer assertion is laughable: industrial society will collapse long before it renders the planet unlivable for hardy, archaic microbes: they are found kilometers deep buried in primeval rock and under the sea floor. Even if we somehow succeeded in sterilizing the earth's surface of life, ancient bacteria would eventually recolonize the seas and the land in a few zillion years.. Humanity, of course, is more fragile than the earth itself and so we could, conceivably, cause ourselves to go extinct. I just rather doubt it: protohumans and humans survived terrific hardships and are a resilient lot. More to the point: what the hell kind of world are my kids and grand kids going to live in..

             In all honesty, it must be admitted Prof Wilson has stepped up to bat. He has headed or supported various organisations devoted to international conservation efforts. My difficulties in accepting his proposals lie not in his scientific analysis of climate and ecosystem health but in the implicit "business-as-usual" perspective of human demographics and economic activity his analyses are based on. In short, Wilson is proposing what I would call the "liberal green action plan". This world view holds that, collectively, we are becoming more aware of environmental problems. Growing wealth of the world's population - especially the poorer segments of societies - permits greater positive interventions in the management of natural life support systems. Thus Wilson encourages his readers to become more informed and active in environmental issues: habitat destruction, energy development,.. It is important to work in both their local communities and, through donations, with international nongovernmental organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature, fair trade associations for third world agricultural producers, etc. This view, essentially optimistic, is founded, I believe, on the false logical argument that the future will resemble the past, that our current trajectory can be adjusted to deliver us to a predictable destination using tools and strategies we are familiar with. Since I do not share Wilson's assumptions regarding the sustainability of the current trajectory, I find much to criticize in his proposals (and much less in his overall guiding principles). 

            In discussing declining global birth rates - page 30 - Wilson speaks of these almost as if they reflected declines in absolute population levels. Such reductions in population growth may provide reason for "guarded optimism" perhaps, but not reason to rejoice just yet. Total global population has not leveled off yet, it's just growing more slowly..

             Wilson attributes the observed declines in growth rate to the globalized industrial economy, urbanization and the empowerment of women. Historically, modernization has indeed depressed mortality below traditional birth rates, creating a chronic excess of births over deaths. During modernization, European societies generally doubled their population sizes from the Enlightenment (latter half of 18th century, the early Industrial Era) to today. Thus it is perhaps a bit disingenuous to claim that the major, or immediate, impact of trends like economic globalization and women's liberation is a decrease in population growth! The short and medium term perspective seems rather the converse: a multigenerational pulse of population growth until birth rates once again drop to equilibrium with mortality rates, the condition that existed in "steady state" traditional economies (except that there, high birth rates were in equilibrium with high mortality rates).

             Thus, when modern medicine and hygiene are introduced, the immediate impact will be a sharp reduction in infant mortality creating a "baby boom". Even if these kids have fewer children than their parents (say three rather than five), there will be a glut of young parents producing a huge number of offspring. Moreover, this second generation glut of babies, like their parents, will have a lower mortality rate thereby causing a secondary, or "echo", baby boom in the next generation. Even if birth rates continue to drop in successive generations, it will take several generations for birth and death rates to equilibrate. During this time, if European societies are any guide, population will probably double. To worsen matters, the "baby boom" generation of early modernization will produce a glut of unemployed, often unemployable, young men looking for trouble (it's a hormone thing aggravating lousy future perspectives..) How much of contemporary terrorism is actually due to "socio-demographic factors" is anyone's guess, given the state of evolution of the human and social sciences. But failed development, rampant population growth and poverty, the "boomerization" / juvenilization of the population, the breakdown of traditional social arrangements without adequate replacement - none of this announces a smooth transition into the "Information Century".

             Prof Wilson does make a capital point, though: "the freeing of women socially and economically results in fewer children". This has been established but the question remains: does the liberation of women necessarily result from globalization? Can globalization, as currently practiced, not actually hinder the empowerment / liberation of women? One thinks of the repressive regimes bankrolled by the USA, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Pinochet in Chile, Mubarak in Egypt come immediately to mind!

link: torture-under-pinochet

              Prof Wilson appears to (naively) believe the West will act in the best interests of third world countries. Given the last 500 years of colonization and exploitation by Europe, the track record is not good.. defintely not a good start. I personally believe that, more often than not, the West acts in the (perceived) interest of its own ruling elites and, only secondarily, in the interest of "symbiotic" third world elites who serve their Western masters by keeping the "natives in their place". (It's called neocolonialism.) A rather shocking example: to recuperate bad loads made to thrid world states, IMF and WB forced third world cut backs in social safety nets which actually act as brakes on procreation. In these traditional societies, children are their parents' old age pension plan. Cut back on modern social safety nets and you re-instate the traditional argument for huge families! (Sometimes it's hard to believe that people working for IMF and WB generally have university degrees - makes you wonder what they are teaching these days..) A non-ideological approach to development would instead work to fine tune social programs like old age pension, social medicine, affordable or free schooling, family planning with ready access to contraception, etc in order to speed up the "demographic transition" to a steady state low birth rate / low death rate modern society. Even more damning for the perspective that the West acts as a "moral agent" in the world: the support by the West - particularly the United States - of Islamic "freedom fighters" during Cold War anti-Soviet conflicts. These policies have now come back to bite us in the rear end as former mujahideen "freedom fighters" have morphed into today's "islamofascists", "extremists" and "terrorists".

"The arms race between the Cold War superpower rivals sapped the Soviet Union of its economic lifeblood and presaged the collapse of communism. The decisive battle of the Cold War was fought and won for the West in Afghanistan by Muslims. They were trained, indoctrinated, armed and given financial assistance with the approval and support of the West and the more affluent “moderate” Islamic countries, notably Saudi Arabia. Thousands of volunteers from Muslim countries and particularly the Arab world were flown to training camps in Pakistan and sent into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation forces. They were acclaimed as the “mujahideen” or holy warriors and were lionised as the heroes of the liberation struggle. By one account, mujahideen commanders were paid between US $ 20,000 to $ 50, 000 each per month while those that were more influential received US $ 100,000. Afghan, Arab and Pakistani mujahideen were convinced they were fighting a holy war against the godless communists. This is what they were taught in some, but not all, of the seminaries or madrassas of Pakistan. In 1971 there were approximately nine hundred madrassas in Pakistan by mid-1988 the number soared to eight thousand recognized religious schools and “an estimated twenty-five thousand unregistered ones.”"

                That's right, we have Ronald Reagan and his macho gang to thank for the disastrous political climate we are living in now. (When I discovered these facts, I could hardly believe it: why are our leaders such - apparent - idiots? And what does this say about the institution of democracy - since the people put these joiks in power in the first place..)

              It is also obvious that many westerners do care about what happens elsewhere and about the fate of our earth for future generations. Witness the "ethical investement" and "fair trade" movements, not to mention third world adoptions, emergency relief aid, etc. That is not the point. The west, like everyone else, is a house divided against itself, a house "of many mansions" with divided, often conflictual interests. Wilson, in essence, is providing us with an over idealized vision of the West and a very over optimistic judgement of its future capacity to "carry" third word "development" and emergency relief. In my reading, the capacity of upper middle class westerners, the people Prof Wilson is counting on, will diminish as the impacts of non-renewable resource supply short falls begin to work their way through the system.

             We are beginning to see the early stages of this process in the Peak Oil phenomenon. Oil, a non-renewable resource, exists in great quanity in the ground. When people began to exploit it commercially, at the beginning of the twentieth century, they logically went after the "low hanging fruit", the stuff easy to get at: it actually spurted out of the ground under pressure, no need to pump. For every barrel worth of energy used to extract, ship, process and distribute  the oil, the producer got the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil out of the ground. We say he had an "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" ratio, EROEI, of 100 : 1. Today, the low hanging fruit has all been picked. Today we are forced to go after the hard to get stuff. Despite technological advances, the EROEI for contemporary "new" reserves just going into production is a mere 7 - 8 : 1. An incredible depletion in resource quality in a mere century! 

              Obviously, from a physical perspective, an EROEI of 1 is the break even point for which you are wasting your time: for every barrel of oil worth of energy you get one barrel of energy back. Your net gain is zero. Economics, though, is a harsher mistress than physics: energy market analysts claim that an EROEI of about 3 - 4 is necessary for economic viability. We are not far from that already. In short, I find it unlikely that the Western societies will have the wealth - or the inclination - to support the kind of programs of nature conservation Prof Wilson advocates. Example: paying a third world country money NOT to extract oil but to perserve the land in a pristine forested condition. Or paying "carbon credits" for the maintenance of rain forest on the grounds that the ecosytem services provided (climate regulation) is worth more than the monies payed in perpetuity to maintain the forest as a wildlife refuge. Wilson admits that small amounts of sustainably harvested products may be extracted from the forest to offset its upkeep. In addition, ecotourism can provide some payback. Once again, I think he is being overoptimistic about the perspectives for a continued degree of affluence in an energy starved West. Our wealth and power are historically based on cheap energy. Take that cheap energy away and so goes our wealth and power. I may be wrong here, of course, but I don't see the future as rosy as Wilson does.

              Future, though, provides a wealth of information about human / environment interactions. Natural wealth includes essential "ecosystem services" such as oxygen, clean water, bacterial recycling of waste but also the esthetic and health restoring values of natural surroundings. A strong body of evidence is emerging that optimal human health, both physical and mental, is obtained, maintained, or regained by regular contact with the natural world and / or its domesticated representatives like cats, dogs, horses ("therapeutic animal visits" to pension houses, prisons or disturbed / spinal cord injured children for example). It turns out that when you begin adding up all the free ecosystem services in dollar equivalents you arrive at a sum that is (minimally) double the global Gross Nation Product! (Page 106)

             Fortunately, Wilson demolishes the simplistic dollar equivalence valuation. In reality, natural ecosystem serices are vital: without oxygen we die in a few minutes; without water, within a week or so; without food, maybe about a month. Simply put, life is worth more than money when push comes to shove. In practice, this means that the "marginal value" of natural ecosystem services rises exceedingly sharply with increasing scarcity. If water is rationed in an equitable manner and everybody get enough, we bathe less and bitch. Reduce the ration further and we're willing to go to war, eventually even to kill our neighbors to assure our family has enough. Simple dollar valuation cannot account for this quality of essential serves or goods. In the limit a dollar spent on water or food is not worth a dollar spent on a SUV or the gas to run it.

          Even in purely economic terms, going green sometimes wins hands down. Wilson analyzes the case of New York City and the Catskill Mountain catchment basin. As NYC population grew, forests were cleared, farms spread and water quality declined. A proposed filtration plant would have cost $6 to $8 billion with $300 million annual running costs. The city wisely chose an alternative route: it bought and upgraded forested land and subsidized the upgrading of sceptic tanks in the Catskill catchment. Cost a "mere" $1 billion and lower running costs. Better! In addition, the people of NYC and the catchment basin benefit from the "double gift from nature" in perpetuity of clean water at low cost and a beautiful recreational area at no, or little, additional cost. Seems like a no brainer: why don't our leaders do more "system thinking"? Alas, Future, offers no answer to this question..

              It's a bit hard rating a book a disagree with so much written by an author I generally admire. If I put myself in the place of a potentially targeted reader - a 16 year old asking questions, possibly with some interest in earth or space science - I would probably consider this an informative book on several levels: 1- a good, solid set of humane, life-affirming values and 2- a lot of info on human / natural interaction and its economic values and dis-values. From that perspective, I think Wilson has done a good job: give it 8 points on 10, then.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: The Great Extinctions, what causes them and how they shape life

Norman MacLeod: The Great Extinctions, what causes them and how they shape life (Firefly Books, Ltd, 2013), 194 pages and glossary (impressive), index (exhaustive), references; extensively illustrated (images, photos, graphs, maps).

abbreviations used in this review:

CC        climate change
CO2     carbon dioxide gas
GHG     greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane..)
GW       global warming
K/T      Cretaceous / Tertiary extinction event (65 Mya, killed off the dinos)
Mya     millions of years ago
NS       natural selection
P/T     Permian / Triassic extinction event (250 Mya, the greatest extinction)

        This is a good reference book for arguing with climate change (CC) "sceptics" (footnote 1) or for informing oneself of the potential consequences of continuing to treat our world like a garbage bin. The author well presents the emerging - or already emerged - consensus among paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, paleo-ecologists and paleo-climatologists regarding the interaction between climate and biological evolution. We now recognize that earth is a highly variable, unstable, dangerous planet - seen from the perspective of individual species - and that CC is the "major driver" of biological evolution on this planet.

         MacLeod focuses on the main extinction events of earth's history. These are episodes of sharply increased species mortality. The K/T extinction, 65 Mya, killed off the dinosaurs and the flying reptiles, opening the door for mammals to take rulership of the land and birds that of the air.

                        Quetzalcoatlus, ancient flying reptile

        Interestingly, although a batch of dumb disaster movies popularized the "asteroid that killed the dinos" hypothesis, the K/T extinction was actually a relatively minor one. Furthermore, the major culprit is now seen to be CC, not the asteroid. In the words of one marine extinction specialist, Tony Hallam in Catastrophes and other calamities (2), the asteroid hit was merely the "coup-de-grâce" that finished off the late Cretaceous ecosystems, already stressed out by long term, global CC. Healthy ecosystems, while regionally damaged and locally obliterated, recuperate quite well from impacts the size of the K/T asteroid (10 km or 6 mile diameter).

          While mass extinctions may titillate the public's taste for drama and chaos, at least 95% of species extinctions occur outside these periods. In reality, species extinction is an ongoing, natural process and since "mass" extinctions are rare and of relatively short duration, the "background extinction rate" eliminates the lion's share of species extinctions - 99% or more of all known species are extinct, almost all of these died off between mass extinctions.

           Interesting tendencies emerge when one steps back and looks at the Big Picture of evolution as science now understands the process. The graphs on page 46-7 reveal a puzzling trend over the Deep History of life on earth: both the intensity and the variability of background extinctions tend to diminish over time as revealed by the fossil record. Several hypotheses have been suggested but none has yet gained the consensus. Some researchers attribute the decline in background extinction intensity and variability over time to biological adaptations. NS has selected for more resilient species, capable of bouncing back after environmental excursions. Other researchers believe the effect is simply an "artifact", a measurement error induced by the relatively greater frequency of recent fossils compared to ancient ones. It's easy to see why: fossils can be destroyed by geological processes but once deposited in the earth they do not multiply. Their number can therefore only decline over time. Older fossils tend therefore to be rarer than recently formed ones. This observational bias introduces an (unknown) error in our calculations of the intensity and frequency of past background extinction levels. MacLeod suggests that both schools of thought contain some truth. Observational bias is real and natural selection (NS) may also be selecting for more resilient species with greater bounce back capability.

         It should also be noted that extinctions have a "positive" side: accelerated biological diversification and evolutionary change follow in their wake. Since evolution demonstrably speeds up over time - ?? a "learning curve" expressed at the level of the DNA molecule ?? - extinction may be seen as an agent of evolution in a double sense:

1- elimination of species and ecological niches, preparing the way for new species and niches and

2- exerting selectional pressure favoring genomes capable of more rapid selection.

          Emphasizing the complex interactions involved in extinction events, MacLeod distinguishes proximate from ultimate extinction mechanisms. The former - what actually killed - often mask the latter - the real movers that drove the proximate extinction mechanisms. Among the proximate mechanisms are global cooling and changes in ocean - air circulation patterns. Each of these, in turn, can result from several ultimate extinction mechanisms. Thus global cooling can result from:

1- a decline in solar output or

2- an increase in earth's albedo: increased cloud or snow cover reflects more solar energy back to space, cooling the earth; decreased sea levels expose more light colored land, reflecting more solar radiation. These causes mutually interact, further complicating the picture.

           Sea level changes are also highly - if confusingly - correlated with extinction events, especially rapid and / or large scale changes in sea level. Sea level changes may be a proximate mechanism of extinction when, for example, tidewater zones are converted to marshland or terra firma. As their environment disappears, so do tidewater organisms. But sea level changes may also act as more distant, ultimate extinction mechanisms: a rise in sea level causing poisonous deep sea anoxic waters to invade shallow coastal waters. In this case, the proximate - immediate - cause of extinction is lack of oxygen and / or toxic sulfur compounds in the anoxic waters.

          Sea levels have varied widely over earth's history; today's level are at near historic lows, suggesting that contemporary rising levels are merely moving us back towards the historic norms. This is not good news for an overpopulated planet undergoing Global Warming (GW) since rising seas mean less land for all those people to live on and warming water naturally expands, taking more space. Sea levels in the past have been as much as 400 meters / 1200 feet (!sic!) above modern levels, drowning vast shallow continental shelves.

           Sea level changes may result from

1- glaciation / deglaciation cycles (glaciers grow from sea water deposited by precipitation on land). A global cooling trend causes glaciers to grow which, in turn, causes sea levels to drop, exposing more light colored land which reflects solar radiation back to space. In addition, ice and snow are highly reflective, reflecting a high proportion of the light that falls on them back into outer space. Seawater, however, is dark and absorbs most of the light falling upon it. Under appropriate conditions a positive (self-reinforcing) feed back loop can be set up, amplifying the initial cooling trend: 

cooling --> more snow and ice cover --> increased reflectivity --> further cooling

2- changes in the geometry of ocean basins due to plate tectonic movements and ocean floor volcanism. A rising sea bed floods shallow continental shelves, a falling sea bed drains them.


            Again, since the earth system is an interconnected "holon" - or whole, everything affects everything else. Sea level changes produce multiple, often contradicting, effects in the earth system. They cool the earth by increasing the solar energy reflected back to space as described above. They have a role in producing anoxic oceans zones with reduced oxygen levels and potential for life. They may also expose buried sediments containing organic matter which, when exposed to air, break down, releasing GHGs, thus warming the earth. Which effect - warming or cooling - actually dominates depends upon a host of factors. In addition, sea level drops affect the interior climates of large land masses, exaggerating summer - winter seasonal variation and increasing overall aridity. These continental interior temperature modifications may lead to modified jet stream tracks in the upper atmosphere, radically modifying precipitation regimes. Everything is interconnected!

          Marine anoxia or oxygen reduced "Dead Zones", a proximate extinction mechanism which has eliminated many forms of marine life in the past. These kill off marine life in the lower water column, reducing biodiversity and biomass production. 

         Marine anoxia has, as expected, several ultimate causes. One cause, particularly important today because of agricultural and urban waste run off, is increased delivery of mineral nutrients to the seas from the land. Increased land erosion, for example, will deliver mineral resources to the near offshore water column causing life to blossom at the top of the water column. Increased erosion itself may be due to several causes, often interacting: increased precipitation, changes in chemical composition of the atmosphere or regional mountain building activity (which increases weathering of rock due to increased runoff velocity and / or increased precipitation on slope faces). As a result of increased fertilization of the upper water column, organisms in the lower water column may die from lack of oxygen (the guys in the penthouse take all the oxygen for themselves). Toxic compounds - containing sulfur, for example - may accumulate over the seabed. A movement of these toxic waters into shallow continental shelves - caused by sea level rise - may devastate coastal ecosystems, including terrestrial components (sea birds, aquatic mammals..)

            Finally, weather patterns, such as monsoons upon which much of the agriculture of the world depends, and global heat circulation patterns, such as the jet stream or the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic ocean upon which the present climates of Western Europe depend, establish stable patterns of energy and material flows. This is a point climate "sceptics" seem to fail to realize. A small change in, say global temperature, can have a profound geopolitical impact by modifying local and regional precipitation regimes so they no longer coincide with traditional agricultural practices. Civilizations have fallen because of this! 

             A relatively minor shift in jet stream patterns can turn a viable semi-arid region into a desert (or the contrary). For earlier human cultures, these minor tweakings of the climate machine often meant the difference between life or death: migrate or starve / migrate or freeze.

            What do we see when we look for the most basic, primary, ultimate extinction mechanisms? Where are they? What are they?

             Variations in solar radiation are often invoked by CC "sceptics" to explain (away) GW. These variations are (quasi-)cyclic and real. Their affect on human culture can be discovered in ancient historical records and archaeological digs. Unfortunately for the "sceptics", short term variations in solar output are too rapid and too weak to account for contemporary GW, (much less for mass extinction events). Longer term variations in solar output, are perhaps of the right order of magnitude but too slow. The time scales don't match..

             Plate tectonics have powerful climate modifying effects and since CC is the major driver of biological evolution, their role in evolution is primordial. Their influence however is long term and so cannot explain modern GW. It is believed, for example, that the current rate of CO2 increase is much greater than the rate during the Siberian Traps erruptions which, in part, provoked the great late Permian extinction.

link to Siberian Traps: vulcanism and Permian extinction


             A textbook example of the impact of tectonics on evolution is the P/T event, 250 Mya. Tectonic plates assembled the earth's land masses into a single megacontinent, Pangaea ("All Earth"). 

          This produced an intensive "continental" interior climate marked by great seasonal variations. Worse, the imbalances in tectonic forces created by such a logjam of landmasses produced created great interior heating of the earth's mantle. Immense lava flows, the Siberian Traps, expelled GHG into atmosphere, heating the earth.

  http://siberia.mit.edu/    a short video describing GHG effects on CC. Shows what Trap country looks like today, a quarter of a billion years later..

             One likely scenario is that GW resulting from the Siberian Traps eruptions triggered a massive release of sequestered methane from thawing circumpolar tundra and cold northern seabeds. Since methane is even more potent than CO2 as a GHG, these releases drove planetary temperatures to the point of generalized ecosystemic breakdown. The central core of Pangaea became a hellish desert. At the worst, only a thin line of green ran round the earth, a boreal forest ring at 6o deg North - now the latitude the Arctic Circle begins! I personally believe that the resulting extinction generated, via decomposing biomass, a third wave of GHG warming. The resulting extinction was so severe that it marked the end of a biogeological epoch: the Paleozoic. The Mesozoic - the Age of Dinosaurs - followed the great Permian die off: one age of life on earth ended, another began. Once again, CC was the dominant driver of biological evolution on earth.

             The P/T  may even provide a possible analog to current manmade - "anthropogenic" - GW. There is growing evidence that sequestered methane in northern tundra and shallow seabeds is destabilizing (?? possibly reaching a tipping point of massive, rapid and irreversible release ??)

video: thawing northern lakes catch fire! 

              During the late Permian extinction, anoxic - dead, oxygen free - zones in the ocean developed and spread. We see the initiation of similar phenomena today. The primary cause usually cited: runoff from agriculture and city sewage fertilizes the ocean, stimulating overproduction of biomass in surface waters. The lower water column shows a drop in oxygen content due to the increased biological activity at the surface. In the fossil record, anoxic periods are inferred from carbon, sulfur and iron rich ocean sediments: if oxygen were present these elements would oxidize. Anoxic zones - if not totally depleted of oxygen to the point of lifelessness - contain fossils of organisms which tolerate low oxygen levels. Such organisms have low metabolic rates and do not disturb sediment layers by extensive borrowing. Undisturbed sediment layers therefore indicate low oxygen levels.

             It is interesting to note, that our present rate of GHG emissions is predicted to bring an approximately 5 C temperature rise by 2100. Yet the truly massive P/T extinction - the biggest of all - is associated with only a SIX C rise in temperature :-0 Such evidence comes from many sources: isotopic analysis, soil type and floral analyses (page 100).

               Another reason the P/T extinction might be a fit subject of study for the future evolution of CC: it provides us with an extreme, worst case scenario, thereby lying bare the major causal mechanisms and consequences of CC / GW. "It must be remembered that, in all likelihood, Siberia Trap volcanism was merely one trigger - albeit a major trigger - that combined with the state of the planet at that time - a profound sea-level lowstand, extreme continentality, unprecedented globally high temperatures, marine deep-water stagnation - to cause the late Permian environment to be in a profoundly unstable state. None of these factors was foreordained to have been present and none was more important that the others in terms of the ensuing biodiversity debacle. Indeed, the absence of any one would in all likelihood have resulted in a less intense episode of environmental challenge. But in the late Permian, a "perfect storm" of environmental contingencies came together.. The result was the largest single extinction event the earth has witnessed to date." (page 103)


Really? And what, exactly, would it take to kill these off.. (Inostrancevia Alexandri, a synapsid reptile or proto-mammal of the late Permian. Mammals are modern synapsids - lucky for us that some of these dudes did manage to survive..)

             The most popular extinction is, of course, the K/T which "killed the dinos". Nuance: by the middle of the Mesozoic, birds had evolved from theropod dinosaurs. So if dinos didn't survive, at least theropods - modern birds - did. Once again, multicausality is stressed: extinction events are not so much unique lethal events as co-incidental lethal combinations of multiple environmental stressors which reach tipping points beyond which local / regional species and ecosystems can no longer adapt. The result: elevated rates of species extinctions which are subsequently labelled "mass extinctions". 

              The Cretaceous - end phase of the Age of Dinosaurs - experienced massive sea level drops. These produced marine extinctions as ecosystems were eliminated, reduced in size or fragmented (reducing vital biodiversity and resistance to environmental stress).

              Increased extinction rates on land resulted from attendant CC: continental surfaces became larger as sea levels dropped. Interior "continental" style climates became more extensive and intense with increased seasonal variation and aridity. Isotopic studies indicate severe global cooling, further stressing marine and terrestrial organisms. A major volcanic episode, the Deccan Traps, India, coincides with the K/T geological and biological boundary (suggesting a link between Traps vulcanism and the K/T boundary extinction event).

                           The Deccan Traps, a massive lava outpouring in India

                  This event spewed massive amounts of CO2, acidifying the oceans to the point of shutting down primary phytoplankton production. This obviously provoked a chain of extinctions down the food web, including coastal terrestrial species feeding on ocean biomass. Global temperatures would have soared as much as 10 C (18 deg F) by some estimates, provoking more extinctions as the earth snapped from a stressed cooling period to an even more stressing period of precipitously rising temperatures. 

                  Analogy with today: we are acidifying the oceans with CO2 to the point we, too, will provoke a shut down of primary phytoplankton biomass production.

                 Finally, then, the coup-de-grâce everyone is waiting for: the asteroid struck, 65 Mya and "killed the dinos".  But it was already a world down on its knees from Climate Change..

 How much does past climate tell us about today's world?

                 PETM: the Paleogene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. A very curious event, this one. The modern biological world began with the K/T extinction, 65 Mya. The first half of the modern period was decidedly warmer than the second, during most of which one or both poles were ice covered. One of the curiosities of the warmer first half is a short, extremely high spike in temperature. Over a span of 2 -3 thousand years in the early Eocene, about 55 Mya, global seawater temperatures rose by 6 C (11 deg F) as measured by carbon 13 isotopic measures in ocean sediments. The equatorial tropical zone expanded, pushing subtropical arid zones northward. As expected, extinction rates climbed in response to climate stress on ecosystem integrity.

                 Many researchers link the PETM to a sudden release of methane from thawing permafrost and "methane-ice" sequestered in circumpolar coastal seafloors. Such a massive release of methane  - a much more potent GHG than CO2 - would induce a positive feedback loop in which warming provokes methane release which, in turn, causes further GHG warming. Contrary to some doom-sayers, this process need not result in a "runaway greenhouse effect" leading to earth becoming a hellish desert, devoid of life, like planet Venus. Given the position of the earth from the sun, methane releases should not lead to a Venus-like runaway greenhouse heating effect. The proof lies the pudding! Despite all the excursions of earth's history - chemical, biological, tectonic, astrophysical.. - if the earth's climate were so sensitive to GHG runaway, we would certainly have seen it by now.

                The real problem today is that we are pushing atmospheric CO2 levels up to 400 parts per million, the highest level in a few zillion years. Despite CC deniers and "sceptics", the earth IS warming:


                This semi-technical article - written by real earth scientists, not untrained "sceptics" and self-pronounced pseudo-experts - explains that the recent "pause" in GW, much publicized by GW "sceptics", is insignificant / spurious. In large part it is "artefactual" - measurement bias - introduced by recalibration of data bases and by lack of measurement stations in Arctic regions. In reality, the whole "GW pause" flap is a red herring: the measurement period is statistically too short to say much of anything with confidence. If somebody repeatedly tossed a coin and came up with heads 50 times in a row, I would have reason to suspect something was fishy. Five times, not so much: there is about 1 chance in 30 of getting 5 heads in a row. You simply can't say too much about the real significance of such statistically short sequences.

                 From a scientific - not ideological - perspective there is NO solid evidence that GW (which is occurring) is NOT due to human economic and agricultural activity. Therefore, it appears logical, rational, moral that we should be held morally responsible for the consequences of GW. Since the probable consequences are quite serious, the moral responsibility is also quite grave. For example, GW threatens to reduce agricultural output on an already overpopulated world the population of which is still growing. Why is the world population still growing? Who is responsible?

                On a purely intellectual level, current GW is a BIG problem because everything we really know about CC tells us that the earth ought to be cooling off, slowly drifting back into an ice age. But this just ain't happenin' folks: the earth she warms. Something ain't right..

book review on ice age science (Imbries)

                 The following technical article deals honestly with some of the real difficulties determining long term climate cycles like the ice ages.


                  The biggest problem of all: there is growing evidence that currently rising temperatures in the northern circumpolar regions are beginning to destabilize methane sequestered on seafloors and thawing tundra. Of all climate change mechanisms this is probably the one we should fear most. It is potentially a real game changer. Even if the earth did not suffer the heating of the late Permian extinction, the effects on global agriculture would be geopolitically destabilizing on an unprecedented scale.

                   I like Prof MacLeod's concluding note, written as a true democrat, page 193:

                 "Whether the effects of human population growth and economic development are allowed to develop unchecked to the point at which the extinction of living species eventually does reach a magnitude consistent with the great extinctions in earth history will depend on the decisions each individual makes with respect to how they live, what they buy, how they vote and what sort of planet they wish to pass on to future generations" Can't be clearer than that! If we are victims, it is because we, as citizens - not "clients" as neoconservative technocrats would have it, we citizens have let ourselves be duped, let outselves be manipulated to overconsume lots of (admit it!) junk we didn't really need. We let ourselves be "victimized"..

                 This is a good book, especially as a reference work. It's weak  points: a certain stylistic heaviness / clumsiness at times; excessive use of jargon (offset somewhat by the impressive glossary). I found the synoptic images of past ecosystems a bit too small, crowded and lacking sufficient explanatory captioning. Fewer images, better described and explained would have pleased me. Let's be generous, give Prof MacLeod a break, a solid 8 on 10.


1- Why we object to the use of the word by Climate Change "sceptics", Global Warming "sceptics" and Peak Oil "sceptics". We put the word in quotes to indicate our scepticism toward their use. Originally, philosophical skepticism meant a general approach to inquiry that requires all information to be well supported by evidence. It is rather evident to any (relatively) unbiased observer that this is not what our current crew of anti-science "sceptics" are up to. They are ideologues who "know" that right is on their side. "Debate" degenerates to mudslinging matches with self-righteous character assassination the weapon of preference. Modern "sceptics" therefore embody the antithesis of the attitude they claim to hold toward inquiry.

2- Tony Hallam:  Catastrophes and other calamities, Oxford University Press, 2004


I love the concluding lines of the above book review: "the subject is open to some discussion and Tony Hallam's view is certainly no less worthy and clearly the End-Permian is something close to his academic heart. Consequently students recommended this text need to be encouraged to read it and then think for themselves. This last is something that sometimes we forget in today's occasionally mass-fact regurgitation dominated education regimen". Thinking, the lost art - Amen! brother Amen!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: E O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth

E O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth (Liveright Publishing , NY, 2012) 297 pages, references (adequate), index (minimal). Well illustrated: drawings, photos, tables

abbreviations used: EP - Evolutionary Psychology 
                                NS - natural selection

       I had the good fortune to read this text soon after reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (1994), another "classic" of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) destined for a wide reading public. These two texts published nearly two decades apart provide a fascinating series of snapshots of a rapidly evolving area of scientific investigation. It is possible we are witnessing, or have already witnessed, the birth of a new science, EP - formerly known as "Sociobiology". Texts such as Wright's and Wilson's would correspond, roughly, to Darwin's  Origin of Species. Time will tell if EP is a viable addition to the family of sciences or merely a passing intellectual fad.

           What is EP? The study of human behavior - or the human mind - and its evolutionary history. What is its inherent interest? Wilson, like Wright before him, argues that knowledge is power, power to change our currently irrational, self-destructive behaviors which are causing ecosystem collapse, climate change, overpopulation, etc. At this stage of the game, no one knows if such a supposition is warranted or not. Once again, "time will tell"..

           The gist of Wilson's analysis is that wo/man is a"chimeric being" with bipolar instinctive impulses in eternal conflict - the "human condition" so well described by modern existentialist philosophers.. This "house divided against itself" condition is due to the fact that our basic instinctual drives have been "programmed" from two different - usually  opposing - levels of natural selection (NS). The first level is the individual. NS selects for those who look out for # 1. Selfish, status seeking behaviors are selected for. However, NS also operates on another level of biological (and genetic) organization: the group. Here, "altruistic" behaviors, and the genes which support or facilitate them, are selected for. Such (potentially) self-sacrificing, co-operative behaviors often do not favor the survival of the individual but rather increase the efficiency with which the social group can harvest the resources of its environment and compete with other social groups of the same  - or similar - species. 

       In this perspective, genes do not, usually, "cause" behavior but modify their intensity, frequency, timing, probability, etc. A mutation in a cerebral neurotransmitter regulating gene might enhance nurturing behaviors in situations where such behaviors are appropriate. If, in addition, there were selective pressures such that nurturing individuals produced more successfully breeding offspring, the mutant gene would tend to spread in population. Eventually the mutant might eliminate "competing" alleles (variant forms of the gene). Alternatively, a balance in frequency of occurrence  between the mutant and other alleles might be struck, a balance which shifts as environmental conditions fluctuate. As environmental conditions - including competition with other groups or species - shift the balance of benefits and disadvantages between the different alleles, their relative frequency of occurrence in the population will vary accordingly. "Success" in the Darwinian "struggle for survival" in the end means reproductive success of a genetic lineage over time.

         Humanity evolved as a highly adaptable, intelligent, tool making / tool using primate. Our nature is basically social. Our true strength lies in strategizing and working together. A strength which is also our weakness for, like other social mammals, "alien" groups and those belonging to them are naturally seen as enemies or competitors for the resources of our territory. This situation, transposed into  the modern technological era of atom bombs and genetic engineering is obviously untenable. Tribalism in its ancestral expression must go or we will not survive as a civilization. Since we cannot change our nature - we will remain tribal as long as we remain human - we must adopt tribal urges and needs to modern conditions of living. One suggestion: we must learn to decentralize our systems of governance and our economies. Humans have survived and thrived against imposing odds when they lived in small, cooperative, self-governing social bands (hunter-gatherer clans). One knew one's neighbor, one worked with him and one governed the community with him. One depended on one's neighbor in hard times. This is the good side of tribalism - as Wilson recognizes.  Much of the misery and failure of modern, depersonalized, industrial societies lies in the loss of these positive aspects of tribal life. We have, perhaps rejected these aspects at our own peril: might not some of the collective social monstrosities of the 20th century - fascism and communism in particular - be due to a desperate attempt to recapture the tribal?

          Wilson argues that genes drive cultural evolution. These genes act through group selection: groups which cooperate best compete best. This process is "recursive", like that old riddle puts it: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Genes drive social / cultural evolution which, in turn, selects for particular genetically determined traits. Society does this by selectively rewarding - in such ways as to increase reproductive success - individuals who exhibit desired traits (the assumption being that the trait in question has some, at least, genetic determination). At the limit, it is arguable that our genes have been selected to make us culture creating animals. So much for the old "Nature versus Nurture" debate. "Human nature" - our genome - and "Culture" are interacting, not mutually exclusive categories. The situation is analogous to the relation of the individual and the society they live in. The society shapes and nurtures the individuals who compose it. The society, in turn, emerges from the collective behavior of the individuals who compose it. Chicken or egg?

           From this perspective, it is not hard to see why so many cultural traits appear either universal or quasi-universal around the world: language, music, poetry, marriage, hierarchy, justice and law, religion, magic, divination, belief in gods and some kind of afterlife, medicinal use of plants, manners and customs, rites and rituals, taboos, superstitions, respect, honor and shame, humor, crime and deviance, architecture, time reckoning and so on. The list is impressionably long, in fact. The fact that there is so much "in common" between human groups - yet expressed so differently! - strongly suggests a common (hence genetic) origin. All men have language, this is genetically determined. But what that language will be, what it sounds like, what its particular genius will be depends upon local and historical contingencies, not genes.

            The scientific study of color language, for example, tends to confirm these insights. If we look at the number of colors different languages recognize, we are surprised by the common sequence by which new colors are added:

- white and black: two color words used
- red is added next: three word color vocabulary
- either green or yellow is added next: four color words used
- five color cultures invariably recognize: white, black, red, green AND yellow
- six color cultures add blue
- seven color cultures add brown

             The statistical odds against such invariance are very large. At the physiological level, the pattern observed reflects well the varying sensitivity of the human eye to different colors. Thus in color naming - a cultural trait - our genetically determined physiology plays a strong role. Caveat! Humans are not "biological robots". It is culture - and, to some degree, environment - that determines how many colors are recognized..

            Human social nature appears to represent a powerful advance in evolutionary and adaptive potential. Sociality permits NS to operate in a more "holistic" fashion because what is being selected for are not individual traits of physiology but behavior patterns (and their supporting emotional matrix) emerging from the interactions of many individuals. Much the same may be said of cognitive abilities. Emerging problem solving abilities are linked with the evolution of language as language allows a group of individuals to share a common cognitive field and exchange information, increasing the "bag of survival tricks" the group possesses. Example: the ability to integrate cognitive aptitudes within the individual mind. Chimps, surprisingly, are more spontaneously innovative than humans. The average chimp can figure out more novel uses of screw drivers and hair blowers than you can, hands down. But their ingenuity lies mostly fallow: they do not pass on their inventions to future generations the way humans have learned to do. Our spontaneous mechanical ingenuity may be less than theirs but, as a species, our innovativeness seems better integrated into our overall psychology and social behavior. Our capacity, not just to innovate, but pass on innovations and build upon past innovations has allowed homo sapiens, as the book of Genesis puts it, to "dominate the earth". Language - a shared or group phenomenon - is another product of "holistic" NS acting at the level of the group, not the individual organism.

           Wilson emphasizes that, as evolution proceeds, it seems to act in a more holistic fashion. In the  early stages of proto-life - the "chemical soup" of the early oceans - random "mutations" could occur in the cycles of self-replication of autocatalyzing enzymes. Such "mutations" could, sometimes, result in more efficient autocatalyzing cycles. Less energy might be used for the enzyme molecule to copy itself. Or it might make fewer - or better! - errors during the copying process. Such "improved" enzyme cycles would, being more efficient in harvesting the energy and material of their environment, tend to dominate and lead to more efficient self-replicating chemical cycles. From such humble origins, life emerged. Or so the new book of Genesis, written by Science, reads..

         With the emergence of more complex nervous systems and complex social behaviors (birds, mammals, social insects), NS could act on more "holistic", integrative properties of collectivities. For proto-humans and early humans, this group level was represented by the hunter-gatherer clan of several dozen to, perhaps, several hundred individuals. Groups who harvested the resources of their territory more efficiently tend to displace - or eliminate - the less efficient. In the process, human traits like group solidarity and our sense of justice emerged. And so did our propensity for tribalism, nationalism and racism - the dark, obverse face of group solidarity and brotherhood.

          Human cultural evolution, especially after the introduction of modern science and technology, poses some very special problems and perspectives, some of which make me wonder if EP - being a science - is capable of addressing them in their fullness.Our science makes us morally responsible for the life of our world in a way that applies to no other animal, past or present - just for openers..

             EP is, generously, an emerging science. (It may have an analogy in Astrobiology, the study of the physical conditions under which life emerges in the cosmos.) It's weaknesses: relatively weak explanatory power, resulting in instability of foundational categories and principles. Thus, back in 1994, a widely acclaimed popularization of EP, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright defined three principles which found EP as kin-selection, reciprocal altruism and social status. Less than two decades later, one of the founders of EP, EO Wilson himself, rejects kin-selection - which he formerly championed -and replaced it by group-selection. The difference may seem slight to the outsider but both Wright and Wilson emphasize their incompatibility. Kin-selection operates on related individuals (kin). The biological  clan is the nexus and target of NS's ministrations. Group selection operates on the level of competing social groups (generally composed of a mix of related and non-related individuals). The fact that foundational principles are still in such a fluid state suggests that EP may not yet have fully won its spurs as a full-fledged science. It may be moving through a transitional phase. One one side, the pre-scientific array of competing "schools" (one thinks of schools of psycho-analysis or Communism's various sects). One the other side, the Sciences, each with its dominant "paradigm" or consentually agreed upon hypothetical model guiding research.

        I have read several books on EP recently and found them fascinating. EP will, probably, have its plate full with the emerging study of religion and religious behavior. EP appears to ask the right kinds of question: not "does God exist?" but "what is the function of religion - or belief in God - in human societies and in their evolution?", "what advantages did religious behavior confer on those groups which possessed genes favoring the emergence of such behaviors?"

       I found Wilson's discussion of religion perhaps the weakest part of the text. Not from lack of sympathy with his critique: I concur that religion's hands are blood drenched, that, indeed, religion is "irrational". While Wilson admits the attraction of religion, one feels his resistance to the subject. He gives lip service to religion's power: "the power of organized religion is based upon their contribution to social order and personal security, not to the search for truth. The goal of religions is submission to the will and common good of the tribe" (page 259).

           Indeed, Wilson captures much truth here but distorts some. It is probably too early to assess "modernity" - we live too close to the trees to see the general lay of the forest - but one interpretation of the 20th century reads: if God is dead, then He must be resurrected. The political ideologies of the last century may be seen as surrogates for dead faiths. Like religions proper, they often make high demands and force an "ascetic" existence upon the zealous. The Marxist future utopia - the Classless Society - justified much human sacrifice, both self-immolation and (mass-)murder. Is this different from high demand religious faiths like, during certain phases, Christianity or Islam? It may be that the role of religion in providing "social order" - a "road map of reality" - may be primordial - and irreplaceable. Time will tell..

           "The goal of religion is submission to the will and common good of the tribe". This statement is perhaps more ripe with (discordant) meanings than Wilson realized. One might debate whether or not tribes - like anthills - actually possess anything that could, by analogy with individual minds, be called a (collective) Will. However, for me, the important point is submission to the  common good of the tribe. The question is obviously a minefield. For example, WHO determines is the common good? Today, with our burgeoning - and interlocking, mutually reinforcing - ecological, social, moral, political and economic crises, the idea of a common tribal good - for all of humanity if not the entire biosphere - is becoming strongly clarified. Once we choose to reject the narcissistic option, we are left with questions like: what kind of a world do we WANT to leave to our children?

           I feel that Wilson does not address the fully metaphoric power of religious language and thought. It is arguable that "religion" - or other similar modes of cognition - allows people to break through logical / emotional logjams of suffering, loss, grief, absurdity.. to reach places of healing and transcendence. But rather than address these transformative powers of religion, Wilson restricts his discussion to "intellectual" matters such as the (literal) validity of creationist claims or the belief that the universe possesses an overall purpose conferred by the Deity. In so doing, he skirts the potentially beneficial, healing power of religion to "unite the tribe" in a web of solidarity, caring and mutual aid.

          Above all, religion was "invented" to satisfy a basic human need or cluster of needs: the need to situate or ground our existence in a larger whole which provides our life with context, meaning, purpose, signification, value. Viktor Frankl, was a psychotherapist who survived the Nazi death camps. Frankl observed that without a sense of purpose, human life degenerates, becoming existentially flat and clinically neurotic: Man does not live by bread alone. But a wo/man with a strong life affirming sense of purpose might survive hell.


        Religion may likewise satisfy basic human need for collective rites and rituals which forge , express, reinforce and celebrate community solidarity and brotherhood. One American Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong, has gone as far a identifying God with love. We pray, says Spong, in working for social justice in an active, engaged fashion. Like traditional religions and 20th century political ideologies, Spong's vision of the faithful life makes high demands in time and commitment. It demands a certain form - or attitude - of "asceticism": engagement, faith, devotion, sacrifice, commitment, effort, even risk. Such human needs run deep (but are highly variable in intensity and expression from one individual to another).

        Perhaps the strongest point of Wilson's philosophy lies in his commitment to reason. I have an image of one overlooking a vast panorama (our human evolutionary history in Deep Time perspective.) This view, if cultivated, helps us to "fix" - contextualize - our human strengths, talents, abilities, weaknesses and failings. This "view from a high place" encourages a certain measure of compassion towards others -  perhaps even towards ourselves! - and toward life as a whole. Unfortunately, since Wilson does not fully estimate religion's potentiality for expressing the best in ourselves, his deep and often compelling insights lie fallow.

          The Social Conquest of Earth is a fascinating, engaging, popular introduction to an emerging field of scientific study, Evolutionary Psychology - a work in progress. A good book, mildly flawed stylistically in places - 8 on 10.