Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 9 September 2011

Biology, economy, humanity

This is a culmination of issues from 4 different sources, including one from last week. The first (from last week) was an interview with Rob Brooks, an evolutionary biologist at the UNSW (University of New South Wales) in Sydney, Australia. He also wrote an article in the last issue of COSMOS about the relationship between rock and roll, and art in general, and human evolution. How rock gods like the Rolling Stones (Mick, Keith and Brian, in particular) had a number of offspring via different partners, hence ensuring the successful propagation of their genes.

What was more interesting, and even counter-intuitive, was his revelation that wealthy people statistically have more sons and poor people statistically have more daughters, and that there was a biological explanation for this. He explained that a study in Germany during the industrial revolution revealed that within the landed gentry the sons prospered and daughters didn’t, but amongst the poorer classes the reverse was true: daughters prospered and sons didn’t. He said the reason was cultural as well as biological because sons can’t marry up in the manmade class structure but daughters are more likely to. But the curious point is that, according to Brooks, this is still true today. What’s more, the female selects the sperm with the requisite X or Y chromosome according to her social status, though, of course, not consciously. In other words, nature does it for her.

When asked to give another example in the natural world, he referred to a study of red deer on an island off Scotland (don’t ask me the name of the island; this was a radio interview). Because stags have to compete with others for the does, in a poor season, it makes more sense if a pregnant doe has a female fawn because it would have a better chance of getting pregnant itself. However, in a good season she’s more likely to give birth to a stag because he will have the requisite strength to compete with others. What Brooks is saying is that this biological selection that occurs for animals in the wild also occurs for humans in modern Western civilisation. In the wild it’s climatic conditions that determine the outcome, whereas, for humans, it’s economic conditions. But in both cases the outcome is the same: for the well-off, male offspring are more likely and for the less-well-off, female offspring are more likely.

The other issue that Brooks referred to was what he called the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which he acknowledged was originally coined by Garrett Hardin and has far-reaching consequences in the modern world. The tragedy of the commons is based around the idea that different people, or, more likely, groups of people, share a common resource but no individual or particular group takes responsibility. In fact, it becomes competitive whereby one group will either deny others access or take more than their share yet blame others when this leads to scarcity. We see this in everything from the global depletion of fisheries to the climate change debate to arguments over asylum seekers and refugees.

In Australia, the climate change debate has become irrational with people targeting scientists with death threats and demonstrations demanding that scientists give the ‘other side’ a fair voice. One may well ask who the ‘other side’ is? Popular opinion seems to be the answer. In fact, the argument seems to be that this debate can be resolved by taking a vote the same way political governance is resolved. In other words, ignorance carries the same weight as scientific opinion. It’s a modern equivalent to burning witches to avert a natural calamity. As someone pointed out, getting rid of the scientists isn’t going to get rid of the science, yet that’s what these people seem to think.

The relevance between this debate and Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that no one wants to take the lead in committing to lowering carbon dioxide emissions and countries all over the world point to the ‘other’ as being the chief culprit. So no one will take responsibility because it’s always someone else’s problem. In Australia, the populace at large seem to be in denial, and believe that if we stop the science investigating the problem we will stop the problem.

Yesterday I heard an interview with Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence (yes, that’s his official title). Davis is a man with a fascinating past, having lived with indigenous cultures all over the world, but particularly in the Amazon. His message, or one of his messages, is that we discount so many indigenous cultures as backward, irrelevant and imminently extinct.

In the Western world we live in a cocoon shielded by technology to the extent that we don’t even know where our food comes from, how our meat is killed or how many heavy metals there may be in the seafood we eat. Ignorance is bliss. We are so dependent on technology that most of us cannot even imagine living without electricity, even for one day.

Then a friend sent me an article from the New York Times about a study being done on our dependence on electronic communications, which is exactly what I’m doing now. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone camping in the bush but I have good memories of it. I grew up in a place where I could go walking in the bush and literally leave my normal life behind. We know that being in nature, quite literally, affects our well-being. What this study shows is that given time, people stop looking at their blackberries and even stop wearing a watch. For the mind, time slows down and we become more meditative.

We live in an artificial environment from the time we are born. We go to school, in part, to develop a routine that continues through our entire adult lives: get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up… We live on a treadmill that drives the economy and if we get off we become unemployed, a burden to society, lose the meaning of our lives and become destitute.

There is a connection between this small-scale daily process that we all lead and the large scale problems facing the planet. Education is necessary because it leads to smaller families, lower birth rates and greater opportunities. This is just as relevant in third world countries as it is in the first world. But economic growth, in both developing and developed countries, insists that cities keep growing which means that populations must keep growing which means that the ‘tragedy of the commons’ becomes more critical globally, affecting water, food and energy resources world wide, which means more wars.

This is the dilemma of the human race: we have the technology to do almost anything yet we have a clash between economy and ecology, with species and cultural decimation occurring at an unprecedented rate. Davis pointed out that the disappearance of languages is synonymous with the disappearance of cultures. Yet, arguably, cultural diversity is just as important as genetic diversity.

Can we afford to lose the knowledge that allowed us to live for centuries without technology? I’m not arguing that we give up technology or turn back the clock, quite the contrary. I’m arguing that we look at the future and find a vision that doesn’t end in a train wreck. We need to rid ourselves of our dependency on fossil fuels, develop an economy that rewards recycling and longevity over waste and limitless consumerism, and change our perception from king of the evolutionary tree to a recently formed and relatively short-lived branch. Having said all that, I don’t expect it to happen without a lot of pain. Human society has a history of boom and bust. Considering the extent of the boom since mid-last century, one does not want to contemplate the bust.

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