Thursday, October 17, 2019

How do we define success for humans [and progress?]

Robert Pollack, evolutionary biologist at Columbia, at Edge: "Rethinking our Vision of Success".

From Darwin:
Inherited novelty may be a sufficient source of novelty over time, so that in enough time, new species emerge from old, and maybe we are all descended from the same living thing initially. And that's true. [...] Darwin gave 150 years ago a clear explanation for how the living world in nature is. His wonderful book On the Origin of Species has the metaphor of a tangled bank. When you look at the tangled bank of a river, you see plants and animals and bugs and worms, and they're all in dynamic tension with each other. That is the source of our notion of ecology.

I've lived as a biologist in the world of Darwin, trying to understand Darwinian pre-adaptive mutation in terms of cancer as distinct from normal cells. I fully think I understand it. Then, as I'm teaching my undergraduates, I discover that we as a single species are wholly out of that tangled bank. We are 100,000-fold in excess of our natural numbers, and we threaten the planet by our success. What I'm thinking about is, what is the language that says our problem is our success, not our failure? I am not one of the people who say, "Woe is us. We failed." My concern is how do I redefine success so that success is at equilibrium with the rest of the living world, and that we do not destroy the planet?
Are we a cancer on the face of the earth?
How do we understand that our 100,000-fold excess of numbers on this planet, plus what we do to feed ourselves, makes us a tumor on the body of the planet? I don't want the future that involves some end to us, which is a kind of surgery of the planet. That's not anybody's wish. How do we revert ourselves to normal while we can? How do we re-enter the world of natural selection, not by punishing each other, but by volunteering to take success as meaning success and survival of the future, not success in stuff now? How do we do that? We don't have a language for that.

We do have structures that value the future over current success. I'm at an institution that has one of those structures. Columbia University is one of the most well-endowed universities in the world. That endowment, which is permanent, according to the economic structure of the country, is stable, it produces wealth without taxation, and that wealth is, by government regulation, required to be spent in the public interest. My job is in the public interest, my teaching is in the public interest, my salary comes that way, my sabbatical, which allows me to find the time to talk to you now. The idea of an endowment is perhaps an expandable idea.
That question, of structures valuing the future over the present, is kinda' what's behind Tyler Cowen's Stubborn Attachments, which "makes the contemporary moral case for economic growth and delivers a great dose of inspiration and optimism about our future possibilities." I suspect that (growth) growth is not exactly what Pollack has in mind. He continues on the theme of endowment:
The more you have, the more you can set aside in a de facto endowment to stabilize the present so that the future doesn't collapse on us.

That's not a taxation. That's not a redistribution. It's a withholding. It's an agreement to do with less now for the sake of the future. I don't see economic structures that do that. I don't see politics that does that. But I see kids, like those in the street this week, knowing if we don't do something like that, they don't have a world.
Well, what is the medicine of a real whole life? What is the medicine of accepting mortality but still being alive? What is the social responsibility we have to each other as we help each other through that transition? Show me the taxation that's spent on that. Show me the infrastructure that goes to that. It's unspeakable, like we can't talk about it. But if we don't talk about it, either at the scale of individual mortality, or the scale of species mortality, or the scale of planetary mortality, we will have participated in the cooperation with nature to end ourselves.

* * * * *
How do we recover or perhaps invent species self-awareness? How do we invent the recognition of each of us as one of 7 billion people, not as one of 300 million Americans, not as one of ten people in our immediate family, not as you name how many different categories we are part of?
* * * * *

Let's repeat: What is the medicine of accepting mortality but still being alive? I'm reminded of a passage from Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966, 178-179):
Another example of death being softened by welcome, if we can put it that way, is the ritual murder by which the Dinka put to death their aged spearmasters. This is the central rite in Dinka religion. All their other rites and bloodily expressive sacrifices pale in significance besides this one which is not a sacrifice. The spearmasters are a hereditary clan of priests. Their divinity, Flesh, is a symbol of life, light and truth. Spearmasters may be possessed by the divinity; the sacrifices they perform and blessings they give are more efficacious than other men’s. They mediate between their tribe and divinity. The doctrine underlying the ritual of their death is that the spearmaster’s life should not be allowed to escape with his last breath from his dying body. By keeping his life in his body his life is preserved; and the spirit of the spearmaster is thus transmitted to his successor for the good of the community. The community can live on as a rational order because of the unafraid self-sacrifice of its priest.

By reputation among foreign travellers this rite was a brutal suffocation of a helpless old man. An intimate study of Dinka religious ideas reveals the central theme to be the old man’s voluntary choosing of the time, manner and place of his death. The old man himself asks for the death to be prepared for him, he asks for it from his people and on their behalf. He is reverently carried to his grave, and lying in it says his last words to his grieving sons before his natural death is anticipated. By his free, deliberate decision he robs death of the uncertainty of its time and place of coming. His own willing death, ritually framed by the grave itself, is a communal victory for all his people (Lienhardt). By confronting death and grasping it firmly he has said something to his people about the nature of life. [...]

The old spearmaster giving the sign for his own slaying makes a stiffly ritual act. It has none of the exuberance of St. Francis of Assisi rolling naked in the filth and welcoming his Sister Death. But his act touches the same mystery. If anyone held the idea that death and suffering are not an integral part of nature, the delusion is corrected. If there was a temptation to treat ritual as a magic lamp to be rubbed for gaining unlimited riches and power, ritual shows its other side. If the hierarchy of values was crudely material, it is dramatically undermined by paradox and contradiction. In painting such dark themes, pollution symbols are as necessary as the use of black in any depiction whatsoever. Therefore we find corruption enshrined in sacred places and times.
There's no way out:
The second way we risk the future is by cleverly thinking some of us can escape it. Whether we think we can escape it by living in a satellite or false planet someplace outside Earth, or whether we think we can escape it by using our treasure to go to Mars or the moon, it's the same problem. That "we" is a very small number of people, and I'm interested in the species.

The fundamental reality of life is that we cannot be more important than one another, insofar as each of us has a direct descent from anaerobic bacteria 4 billion years ago. [...] No, I'm not interested in transhuman models. I'm not interested in saving us. I'm not interested in freezing brains. I'm interested in the same old boring thing inside a mortal universe of mortal people—how best to care for each other and to care for each other's futures. And I do not think the purpose of science and technology is to give one in a billion of us a chance to get away from that.

I have to clarify the essence of what I'm trying to say. I am not making a political statement. I do not have a mechanism to value the future over the present in time to give us a future. The current redistribution plans for fairness, for taxation, for whatever political opinion you may have are all for the present or the immediate future. They will not save the planet from this species. To save the planet from the species requires a species-wide response.

Our entire history since the emergence of our species, with its ability to have language and conversation, has been in the direction of limiting our ability to hear and understand each other.
Really? Our ENTIRE HISTORY? How so? He goes on:
Our species has hundreds, maybe thousands, of languages. If you don't speak someone else's language, you do not know them as a person; they're not quite human. We have in a sense functional subspecies by the thousands of people who cannot talk to each other, who cannot help each other, and who cannot plan together for the future. The same digital world that allows me to give this interview is the digital world that in principle opens up this problem. Google has an automatic translator, but it's only for about a half a dozen languages.
Well, on the one hand, Google translate's not going to do very well with literature, philosophy, and the law. But on the other hand it appears to have almost 100 languages (I just checked). He goes on to assert, two paragraphs later, "We became 100,000 times in excess of natural numbers by caring only about the ones closest to us." That doesn't seem quite right to me. It misses too much, like the simple fact that when we started the industrial revolution we didn't, and perhaps couldn't have, foresee the consequences of releasing all that CO2 into the atmosphere. It may have been that those who started the industrial revolution – the inventors, entrepreneurs, businessmen, workers (colliers, factory workers, and so forth) – all of them cared mostly about those closest to them, but that's in a different realm of causality. It's not as though it was their concern only for those closest that lead them to create the industrial evolution. [Not a very good formulation, I agree, but it's what I can do off the top of my head.]

He goes on to talk about his responsibility as a teacher:
The second pathway is what I do—teaching is a global phenomenon, and it allows me to suspend my age because as I get older, my students don't. If I take this gift as a responsibility, I should be spending my time working with my students to find the language that works for them, not for me, and having them teach me. Reciprocal teaching is conversation. From that I take the third path. How may we begin to experiment with what it looks like, what it sounds like, when two people who never met each other can converse over their common interest in their grandchildren's survival?
Among other things, it seems to me that that is in Mark Moffett's bailiwick, The Human Swarm. At the center of that book is the fact that we live in societies where we routinely interact with people we've never met. And it is that fact, along with technology (both social and material) that has allowed our societies to grow so very and now dangerously large.

Pollack continues on about the need "to think of the language we can share in spite of our differences." What does he mean by language?
The emergence on this planet of rituals that bring people together despite their differences—whether those rituals are wrapped in dogma, which make them religions; whether those rituals are wrapped in laws, which make them political processes; whether those rituals are wrapped in upbringing, which make them educational; whether those rituals are wrapped in physical activity, which make them sports—doesn't matter. They represent that language in parts. None of those languages is now being brought to the problem, which is existential for us all. The closest perhaps would be the current Pope's encyclical on global warming, but I don't see that as having generated in one billion of the 7 billion of us a change in behavior.
Well, there is that encyclical. There are events like "We Are the World", and there is a project like Playing for Change. Several paragraphs later he remarks:
It may be that a global language does it in music. It may be a global language does in an art. My wife and I have a book on evolution. She's an artist and she would come to my classes and make drawings. Then I decided the drawings were better than the slides I showed, so I would show the drawings as slides. And that would be how I taught. [...] What would a graphic novel of what I'm saying look like? I'd really be interested in that. It might be a global graphic novel on how not to miss the boat and disappear because of self-serving short-sightedness.

One of the things he has done is set up a program that, among other things, allowed an undergraduate to work with dying people:
She made up a syllabus—fourteen weeks, fourteen different readings, fourteen different ways of addressing end-of-life issues. And she made the recitation section four hours a week of volunteer service, so that whatever the reading, it pertained to their experience. The head of palliative care medicine at Columbia now teaches this course. It's highly desirable, over-subscribed even. It's four points toward 120 plus to get a degree. Tell me another place in the world where a seventeen or eighteen-year-old kid can create a program that lives on for years afterwards? It's in its fourth year.

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