Tuesday


Interior view showing the control room at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Receiving Station B.

Questioning the Marxian Thesis

In the final section of Technological Civilization: Addendum to Part III, I made the following tripartite distinction among civilizations, such that there are:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

To recap these theses, the Marxian Thesis is that the intellectual superstructure is largely determined by the economic infrastructure, while the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the economic infrastructure is largely determined by the intellectual superstructure. In a paradigmatic civilization, infrastructrure and superstructure are equally determined (to some degree) by the central project. Alternatively, in the language of Robert Redfield, the Marxian Thesis is that the moral order is determined by the technical order, and the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the technical order is determined by the moral order. We can give these theses weaker or stronger formulations depending upon whether we hold the determination of one institutional structure of civilization by other to be marginal or total (or something in between).

The Marxian Thesis is the most familiar and the most influential, having been promoted and argued by Marxists for more than a hundred years. I had to formulate the Burckhardtian thesis myself because no one (to my knowledge) has attempted an explicit exposition or defense of the idea. Since the Marxian Thesis still has considerable influence in some quarters, I want to explicitly confront it with a counter-example. This does not mean that I reject the Marxian Thesis or affirm the Burckhardtian Thesis. My larger point is that different civilizations in different stages of historical development might embody the one or the other by turns. I take on the Marxian Thesis now primarily due to its popularity.

If the Marxian Thesis were true, one would expect that the intellectual superstructure would track the development of the economic infrastructure of civilization, so that as the economy developed, and as sciences and technologies appeared and entered into the economic infrastructure, they would be reflected in the intellectual superstructure precisely for their contribution to the economic infrastructure. One can point out instances that seem to confirm this expectation, but there are also instances that seem to defy the expectation. In order to set aside individual instances that may or may not be representative of a general trend, I would like to paint with a broad brush (as indeed Marx was painting with a broad brush). I have been entertaining a thought experiment for several years that I only recently realized speaks to this assumption of the Marxian Thesis, so I will use this in an attempt to make my point.

The Thought Experiment: Euclid and Darwin

Suppose, across a gulf of nearly two thousand years, we swapped Euclid with Darwin. Suppose that an ancient Greek Darwin had lived in the first few centuries AD, while a Victorian Euclid had lived in the 19th century. Obviously (I hope obviously), I am here using Euclid and Darwin as symbols to evoke developments in science associated with the two figures. Euclid represents the growth of mathematical science in classical antiquity, culminating in a figure like Euclid who would rationalize and systematize prior centuries of mathematical research into a great synthesis. Darwin represents the emergence of a scientific biology in the wake of 19th century achievements in scientific geology. Hutton and Lyell had opened the deep past to geologists, and Darwin opened the deep past to biologists. Euclid and Darwin are not perfectly symmetrical figures. Euclid was a systematizer and and synthesizer, like Thomas Aquinas or Hegel. Darwin stood at the head of a new scientific tradition, that would later be systematized and synthesized by others (significantly, the early twentieth century joining of evolution and genetics is called the “neo-Darwinian synthesis”).

Though Euclid and Darwin were not perfectly symmetrical figures in intellectual history, both men were the authors of books that defined a discipline: Euclid’s Elements defined ancient mathematics, while Darwin’s Origin of Species defined evolutionary biology. Thus by invoking Euclid and Darwin as symbols, what I am suggesting is not merely swapping the historical order of Euclid and Darwin, but more-so transposing their respective sciences in history, so that biology, instead of becoming scientific in the 19th century, instead became scientific in classical antiquity. And that geometry, and, by extension, all of higher mathematics, mostly lay dormant during classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and only fully came into its own in the 19th century. Prior to this time there would have been a rudimentary mathematics, as there was a rudimentary biology in antiquity, but nothing like the sophistication of the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.

Natural selection, despite being counter-intuitive (the human mind is deeply teleological), is a simple idea. Certainly, natural selection is sufficiently simple that, had the idea been formulated in antiquity, and had it become the focus of research in the way that mathematical (and astronomical) ideas had been the focus of multi-generational scientific research programs in antiquity, most of the ideas of Darwin’s Origin of Species could have been formulated in terms understandable in classical antiquity. Moreover, the kind of experiments that Gregor Mendel later performed, which were the foundations of genetics, could also have been performed in classical antiquity. However, there is some ambiguity here in saying that the experiments, “could have been performed.” The experimental programs of Darwin and Mendel required no high technology, and thus could have been performed in classical antiquity (i.e., the lack of experimental apparatus would not have prevented these experiments from being performed), but the idea of experimental research in science did not yet exist in classical antiquity. There are many intimations of experimentation in antiquity, but nothing as methodical and systematic as Mendel’s pea plant experiments.

Let us suppose, then, as part of our thought experiment to transpose modern biological thought into antiquity in exchange for transposing ancient mathematical thought into the modern world, that Euclid’s axiomatization did not exist prior to being formulated in the 19th century, so that it did not appear as a method in antiquity, while experimental scientific method (at least in biology) instead appeared in antiquity. In a sense, this is not so far from what did happen, in terms of mathematical development. Axiomatics appeared in antiquity, but was little developed as a discipline, and was essentially static until the revolution in rigor in the late 19th century which brought a new urgency to axiomatics, which then developed rapidly thereafter, especially in the 20th century.

An Interpretation: Relevant and Irrelevant Scientific Developments

A fully developed evolutionary biology available in classical antiquity would have had significant ramifications. I don’t think it would be too much to say that this would have radically altered the course of the development of subsequent civilization. For example, to take a truly radical scenario, it might have taken human beings and our civilization in the direction of greater eusociality as a species; the understanding of natural selection would have provided the conceptual framework to go about selective breeding in a way that human beings did not undertake. With the knowledge of how species evolve, but without the biotechnology made available by technological civilization, the knowledge would have been there to manage selective breeding to accomplish what could not have been accomplished by biotechnology, and human beings might have bred themselves into multiple castes, phenotypically distinct, and serving functions as distinct as the classes in Plato’s Republic.

This scenario highlights an easily overlooked aspect of modern history: one of the consequences of the world wars of the 20th was a social and political regime of containing and limiting technologies. Global treaty regimes based on moral concerns to limit certain technological developments (paradigmatically, nuclear proliferation, but also chemical and biological warfare, etc.) were the result of a long historical development, and this development had not yet occurred in classical antiquity. (I do not say that this development was good or bad, or that it helped or hindered the development of civilization, I only say that it is.) If ancient civilization had had the power to shape species implied by a knowledge of natural selection, but had not possessed the subsequent history to appreciate the dangers inherent in scientific knowledge and technological power, civilization might have developed in a way that could not be undone, and that would have put humanity of a different course than that which we did in fact take.

One could modify the thought experiment in any number of ways, so, for example, we might have had an ancient Darwin but not an ancient Mendel, which would have meant that the idea of natural selection was available, but the technological application of genetics was not, which would have greatly limited the application of ancient biotechnology. This would be something like the stagnation of axiomatics after Euclid’s use of it. Natural selection as an idea might have lain stagnant for two thousand years before being revived at a later stage of history, and very little would have been changed in subsequent history, especially compared to the radical scenario above.

However, even a level of practical biological knowledge such as represented, for example, by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have made a great difference in the subsequent development of civilization. One of the things (inter alia) that made western European civilization so stagnant during the Middle Ages was the conservatism of agriculture. A better agriculture would have meant a much richer society, with much less likelihood of starvation, hence a lower likelihood of disease, better infant nutrition, and higher IQs as a result. Over hundreds of years, this would have had a significant impact on social development.

To mention the British Agricultural Revolution suggests something about the limitations of thought experiments such as this. It is arguable that Darwin’s work would not have happened without the backdrop of the British Agricultural Revolution; Jethro Tull may have been as important an influence on Darwin as Charles Lyell (whether or not Darwin knew it). After all, Darwin’s Origin of Species begins with a long chapter on selective breeding. It is an act of historical violence to disentangle the history of science from its actual course and to transpose it into another period of time, in which it is not native, and therefore considerable changes must be made in order to naturalize this science in another era.

Back to the Marxian Thesis: a Refutation?

The point of this thought experiment was to examine the Marxian Thesis critically. What I want to suggest with this thought experiment, then, was that classical antiquity did not develop a biological science that would have had a large and significant influence on a biocentric civilization that primarily derived its energy flows from the ambient environment through agriculture. A more sophisticated biology, even a practical biology as represented by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have been immediately applicable to civilization on a large scale, and would have altered the fates of civilizations that used a more sophisticated biology to its ends.

Instead, classical antiquity developed mathematics to a high degree of sophistication and precision. The achievement of Greek mathematics, later to be supplemented by the Hindu number system and Arab algebra, was so far beyond applicability in its time that many of the discoveries of ancient mathematics would not find application until after the scientific revolution, and some not until after the industrial revolution. While the biological thought that could have transformed civilization in antiquity did not develop, a body of mathematical thought virtually without application did develop (a mathematical body of knowledge that would have been highly useful to a technocentric civilization). In this sense, not only did the intellectual superstructure of scientific knowledge fail to track the development of the economic infrastructure, it arguably achieved the antithesis of tracking the economic infrastructure, neglecting knowledge that would have been applicable while developing knowledge that was largely inapplicable.

Taking the Marxian Thesis in the abstract, one might have expected that an agricultural civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated agricultural science, while a technological civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated industrial science. In the former case, this does not seem to have occurred, and, in the latter case, it occurred assisted by the mathematics of an earlier civilization which developed mathematics as an end in itself, and not out of any practical concern for application. While we could try to explain away the absence of a sophisticated agricultural science in pre-modern agricultural civilizations, and appeal to the prominent role of agriculture and pastoralism in ancient mythology and religion (which are other expressions of the intellectual superstructure), this should at least give the advocate of the Marxian Thesis pause.

Part of this disconnect between the knowledge of the intellectual superstructure and the practices of the economic infrastructure may be put to the overall progress of human social and technological development. Any science, such as Darwin’s biology, that was formulated after the scientific revolution was able to be developed much more rapidly, and with greater practical effect, than any science formulated prior to the scientific revolution, which might lie fallow for centuries or even millennia without practical application. The scientific method itself is a triumph of the human intellect, and its formulation, while several hundred years old, is far from complete. We have a lot yet to learn about how to do science. Because modern science is historically recent, one might argue, no science of evolutionary biology could have existed in classical antiquity. There is some validity in this argument, but I do not think that this fully accounts for the disconnect between the infrastructure and superstructure of classical antiquity, which could simply be put to suboptimality.

Arguably, mathematics was developed in antiquity because this was a science that could be developed on a purely intellectual basis with a minimal level of technology, and a minimal, perhaps absent, sense that scientific knowledge would have any application at all, especially to economics. Education in classical antiquity was about preparing an élite class to give persuasive speeches in a public assembly or a law court, and not about advancing knowledge. Moreover, there were any number of simple mathematical ideas that did not appear in classical antiquity. Obviously, the Greeks did not formulate the numbers we use today, which seem to have originated in India, and which are perhaps the most effective and intuitive formalism ever invented by human beings. I noted above that natural selection is essentially a simple idea; for that matter, set theory is also based on very simple ideas that ancient mathematicians could have have grasped, but the idea did not appear until the late 19th century, after Darwin. It would make another interesting thought experiment to ask how history might have been different if set theory had been introduced in classical antiquity. Maybe it would have made no difference at all; maybe not.

Another Take Away: Human Technophilia

However flawed this thought experiment, another take away from it is the extent to which human beings might be called a technologically adept species. We are interested in and express ourselves through technology in a way that suggests that the peculiarities of the human intellect have a particular affinity for technology. We have had many opportunities in our history to go in a more “biological” direction, but we have almost always taken the technologically intensive path. This has been recognized in the past, when human beings have been called homo faber in addition to homo sapiens: man the builder, the doer, the maker, the innovator, and eventually man the engineer of machines. Now that we possess the technological capability to do so, we build entirely artificial environments in which we live, which is why I have argued that Wilson’s biophilia needs to be supplemented with an understanding of technophilia.

Technological civilization, in all its contemporary scope and scale and sophistication, may be a consequence of the peculiarly technological bent of the human mind. And this may be sufficiently peculiar that it happens infrequently in the history of the universe. That is to say, it may be common for biology to evolve into more complex forms, and common even for intelligence to emerge from biology, but uncommon for that intelligence to take the form of a technological interest. It was the human use of technology — spear points, canoes, the bone needle, form-fitting clothing, the use of fire, and so on — which made it possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to settle the planet entire even before we developed civilization. Another way to think about this is that our technological impulses are stronger, and were expressed earlier, than our eusocial impulses. This in itself is an important observation, and may suggest why human eusociality attained the level that it did, but it did not go further, as it has with bees and termites and ants.

Even if my thought experiment does not show what I hoped it would show in regard to casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis (by which I mean, casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis as describing the only or predominant permutation of civilization), it may have some value on shining a light on the peculiarly technological character of the human intellect. Philosopher of technology Don Ihde has identified a technological texture to contemporary life; he is right to make this observation, but we might ask whether this technological texture of life is a result of our lives being unexpectedly transformed by technology since the industrial revolution, or whether human life has always had a technological texture, expressed with the materials on hand, and is due not to some accident of history like the industrial revolution, but is an inevitable projection of the human mind, which is a technological mind. In the latter case, it is the technological character of the human mind that is the accident of history, and, given a mind of this cast, the industrial revolution was an inevitable expression of a mind of this kind.

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Saturday


brain outline

Evolutionary Psychology in an Astrobiological Context

Recently I was reading about evolutionary biology and it struck me how it might be possible to place evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context and thereby formulate a much more comprehensive conception of astrobiology that goes beyond biology narrowly conceived (as well as a much more comprehensive conception of evolutionary psychology). Evolutionary biology itself has gone beyond the strictly biological in the form of evolutionary psychology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate human nature, human behavior, and human thought. Evolutionary biology has also gone beyond the terrestrial in the form of astrobiology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate life on Earth in a cosmological context. To join together these extrapolations of biology in an even larger synthesis would provide a impressive point of view.

I cannot mention evolutionary psychology without pausing to acknowledge the controversy of this discipline, and evolutionary biology today has the (nearly) unique status of being disparaged by both the political left and the political right, but my readers will already have guessed where I am likely to stand on this controversy, especially if they have read my Against Natural History, Right and Left. That the tender sensibilities of the politically motivated are offended by the harsh insights of evolutionary psychology ought to be counted in its favor. Here I am reminded of something Foucault said:

“I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal and so on. An American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.”

Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” in Essential Works of Foucault, edited by Paul Rabinow, Vol. 1, “Ethics,” The New Press, 1998.

Being politically denounced in this way from all possible points of view is an admission that the existing framework of thought does not yet have a convenient pigeonhole in which a person or an idea can be placed and then forgotten.

Evolutionary psychology in the context of astrobiology becomes something even more difficult to place than it is at present, although it seems to me like the logical extrapolation of astrobiology placing biology in a cosmological context. I’m not the only one who has been thinking in these terms. About the same time that I started thinking about evolutionary psychology and astrobiology together, I happened across the work of Pauli Laine, who characterizes himself as a cognitive astrobiologist. Laine spoke at the 2013 and 2014 100YSS conferences (I spoke at the 2011 and 2012 100YSS conferences, so we didn’t cross paths).

The psychology of an organism that attains to consciousness will be constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness. (However, it does not follow that the conscious mind is wholly determined by biological processes; this is a distinct thesis and must be separately defended.) The biology of the organism and its species is, in turn, constrained by the biosphere in which that organism evolved. The biosphere is, in turn, constrained by the planet upon which the biosphere emerged; the parameters of the planet are constrained by the protoplanetary disk from which it and its star formed, this protoplanetary disk is in turn constrained by the galactic ecology of its local galaxy, and the galaxy is constrained by the parameters of the universe. We need not assert determinism at any level in this sequence (i.e., we need not assert that any one level of emergent complexity is wholly and exhaustively determined by the preceding level of emergent complexity) in order to acknowledge the role of an earlier state of the universe in constraining a later state of the universe.

Following the above nesting of local constraints within global constraints, the consciousness and psychology of the individual is ultimately constrained by the parameters of the universe. However, these global constraints are relatively weak in comparison to the local constraints, such as the evolutionary history of the species to which the individual organism belongs.

The next step would be to begin the above nested sequence of transitive constraints with civilization, such that civilization is constrained by the minds that produce it, the minds that produce civilization are constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness, and so on. This doesn’t work so neatly, as we can intuitively see that, while civilization is a product of mind, mind is in turn influenced by the civilization it creates, so that mind and civilization are coevolutionary. This is true of the other instances of transitive constraints mentioned. For example, evolutionary biology is constrained by the biosphere, but the biosphere is in its turn influenced by the organisms that emerge within it. This added complexity does not falsify the point I am trying to make, it just means that we have to take more factors into account. It also means that mind may ultimately play a role in the universe that ultimately constrains it, and if civilization expands throughout the cosmos it is easy to see how this could happen.

Elsewhere I have suggested that astrocivilization is civilization understood in a cosmological context, as astrobiology is biology understood in a cosmological context. I have cited the NASA definition of astrobiology as, “…the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe,” which invites the parallel formulation of astrocivilization as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. Astrocivilization is the extended conception of civilization that follows from transcending our native geocentrism and formulating a concept of civilization free from anthropocentrism and terrestrial bias (and one way to do this is to follow the Husserlian methodology of thought experiments).

Ultimately, our civilization is constructed gradually and piecemeal from countless individual decisions made by countless individuals, each following the promptings of a mind shaped by a long evolutionary history. This evolutionary history may be pushed back in time to the origins of the universe, and when science is capable of taking us beyond this point, the same evolutionary history will be pushed back even further in time to the antecedents of the observable universe. Somewhat more narrowly, given what I call the Principle of Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, the nature of astrocivilization follows from the nature of evolutionary psychology in a cosmological context.

I could have titled this post, “From Astrophysics to Astrocivilization” rather than “From Astrobiology to Astrocivilization,” because we can employ an even more comprehensive framework than that of astrobiology, according to which astrobiology is derived from astrophysics, and particular examples of evolution, ecology, and selection are local and limited instances of what on the largest scale is galactic ecology. But we still have much work to do in placing evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context. We can think of this synthesis of evolutionary psychology and astrobiology (or, employing Laine’s term, cognitive astrobiology) as a higher form of naturalism, where “nature” is not our planet alone, but the whole of the cosmos. Naturalism in this sense is something like cosmologism. This would then answer the question, “What comes after naturalism?” That is to say, once contemporary philosophy has exhausted naturalism, what comes next? What comes next is the universe entire, and, after that, the universe beyond the scope of contemporary science.

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The Genocidal Species

15 March 2014

Saturday


hominid-evolution

Homo sapiens is the genocidal species. I have long had it on my mind to write about this. I have the idea incorporated in an unpublished manuscript, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day, so I will give a brief exposition here. What does it mean to say that Homo sapiens is the genocidal species (or, if you prefer, a genocidal animal)?

Early human history is a source of controversy that exceeds the controversy over the scientific issues at stake. It is not difficult to understand why this is the case. Controversies over human origins are about us, what we are as a species, notwithstanding the obvious fact that we are in no way limited by our past, and we may become many things that have no precedent in our long history. Moreover, the kind of evidence that we have of human origins is not such as to provide us with the kind of narrative that we would like to have of our early ancestors. We have the evidence of scientific historiography, but no poignant human interest stories. In so far as our personal experience of life paradoxically provides the big picture narrative by which we understand the world (a point I tried to make in Kierkegaard and Futurism), the absence of a personal account of our origins is an ellipsis of great consequence.

To assert that humanity is a genocidal species is obviously a tendentious, if not controversial, claim to make. I make this claim partly because it is controversial, because we have seen the human past treated with excessive care and caution, because, as I said above, it is about us. We don’t like to think of ourselves has intrinsically genocidal in virtue of our biology. Indeed, when a controversial claim such as this is made, one can count on such a claim being dismissed not on grounds of evidence, or the lack thereof, but because it is taken to imply biological determinism. According to this reasoning, an essentialist reading of our history shows us that we are genocidal, therefore we cannot be anything other than genocidal. Apart from being logically flawed, this response misses the point and fails to engage the issue.

Yet, in saying that man is a genocidal species, I obviously making an implicit reference to a long tradition of pronouncing humanity to be this or that, as when Plato said that man is a featherless biped. This is, by the way, a rare moment providing a glimpse into Plato’s naturalism, which is a rare thing. There is a story that, hearing this definition, Diogenes of Sinope plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato’s Academy, saying, “Here is Plato’s man.” (Perhaps he should have said, “Ecce homo!”) This, in turn, reveals Diogenes’ non-naturalism (as uncharacteristic as Plato’s naturalism). Plato is supposed to have responded by adding to his definition, “with broad, flat nails.”

Aristotle, most famously of all, said that man is by nature a political animal. This has been variously translated from the Greek as, “Man is by nature an animal that lives in a polis,” and, “Man is by nature a social animal.” This I do not dispute. However, once we recognize that homo sapiens is a social or political animal (and Aristotle, as the Father of the Occidental sciences, would have enthusiastically approved of the transition from “man” to “homo sapiens”), we must then take the next step and ask what exactly is the nature of human sociability, or human political society. What does it mean for homo sapiens to be a political animal?

If Clausewitz was right, political action is one pole of a smoothly graduated continuum, the other pole of which is war, because, according to Clausewitz, war is the continuation of policy by other means (cf. The Clausewitzean Continuum). This claim is equivalent to the claim that politics is the continuation of war by other means (the Foucauldian inversion of Clausewitz). Thus war and politics are substitutable salve veritate, so that homo sapiens the political animal is also homo sapiens the military animal.

I don’t know if anyone has ever said, man is a military animal, but Freud came close to this in a powerful passage that I have quoted previously (in A Note on Social Contract Theory):

“…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”

Is it unimaginable that it is this aggressive instinct, at least in part, that made in possible for homo sapiens to out-compete every other branch of the hominid tree, and to leave itself as the only remaining hominid species? We are, existentially speaking, El último hombre — the last man standing.

What was the nature of the competition by which homo sapiens drove every other hominid to extinction? Over the multi-million year history of hominids on Earth, it seems likely that the competition among hominids likely assumed every possible form at one time or another. Some anthropologists that observed a differential reproductive success rate only marginally more fertile than other hominid species would have, over time, guaranteed our demographic dominance. This gives the comforting picture of a peaceful and very slow pace of one hominid species supplanting another. No doubt some of homo sapiens’ triumphs were of this nature, but there must have also been, at some time in the deep time of our past, violent and brutal episodes when we actively drove our fellow hominids into extinction — much as throughout the later history of homo sapiens one community frequently massacred another.

A recent book on genocide, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Persepctive (edited by ROBERT GELLATELY, Clark University, and BEN KIEMAN Yale University), is limited in its “historical perspective” to the twentieth century. I think we must go much deeper into our history. In an even larger evolutionary framework than that employed above, if we take the conception of humanity as a genocidal species in the context of Peter Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, according to which life itself is biocidal, then humanity’s genocidal instincts are merely a particular case (with the added element of conscious agency) of a universal biological imperative. Here is how Ward defines his Medea Hypothesis:

Habitability of the Earth has been affected by the presence of life, but the overall effect of life has been and will be to reduce the longevity of the Earth as a habitable planet. Life itself, because it is inherently Darwinian, is biocidal, suicidal, and creates a series of positive feedbacks to Earth systems (such as global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane content) that harm later generations. Thus it is life that will cause the end of itself, on this or any planet inhabited by Darwinian life, through perturbation and changes of either temperature, atmospheric gas composition, or elemental cycles to values inimical to life.

Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 35

Ward goes on to elaborate his Medea Hypothesis in greater detail in the following four hypotheses:

1. All species increase in population not only to the carrying capacity as defined by some or a number of limiting factors, but to levels beyond that capacity, thus causing a death rate higher than would otherwise have been dictated by limiting resources.

2. Life is self-poisoning in closed systems. The byproduct of species metabolism is usually toxic unless dispersed away. Animals pro- duce carbon dioxide and liquid and solid waste. In closed spaces this material can build up to levels lethal either through direct poisoning or by allowing other kinds of organisms living at low levels (such as the microbes living in animal guts and carried along with fecal wastes) to bloom into populations that also produce toxins from their own metabolisms.

3. In ecosystems with more than a single species there will be competition for resources, ultimately leading to extinction or emigration of some of the original species.

4. Life produces a variety of feedbacks in Earth systems. The majority are positive, however.

Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 35-36

The experience of industrial-technological civilization has added a new dimension to hypothesis 2 above, as industrial processes and their wastes have been added to biological processes and their wastes, leading to forms of poisoning that do not occur unless facilitated by civilization. Moreover, a corollary to hypothesis 3 above (call is 3a, if you like) might be formulated such that those species within an ecosystem that seek to fill the same niche (i.e., that feed off the same trophic level) will be in more direct competition that those species feeding off distinct trophic levels. In this way, multiple hominid species that found themselves in the same ecosystem would be trying to fill the same niche, leading to extinction or emigration. Once homo sapiens achieved extensive totality in the distribution of the species range, however, there is nowhere else for competitors to emigrate, so if they are out-competed, they simply go extinct.

Ward was not the first to focus on the destructive aspects of life. I have previously quoted the great biologist Ernst Haeckel, who defined ecology as the science of the struggle for existence (cf. Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated), and of course in the same vein there is the whole tradition of nature red in tooth and claw. Such visions of nature no longer hold the attraction that they exercised in the nineteenth century, and such phrases have been criticized, but it may be that these expressions of the deadly face of nature did not go far enough.

There is a sense in which all life if genocidal, and this is the Medean Hypothesis; what distinguishes human beings is that we have made genocide planned, purposeful, systematic, and conscious. The genocidal campaigns that have punctuated modern history, and especially those of the twentieth century, represent the conscious implementation of Medean life. We knowingly engage in genocide. Genocide is now a policy option for political societies, and in so far as we are political animals all policy options are “on the table” so to speak. It is this that makes us the uniquely genocidal species.

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Tuesday


Is homo sapiens sapiens the most successful species? By what measure?

It is easy to suppose that human beings — homo sapiens — constitute the most successful species in the natural history of the planet, but it is somewhat more difficult to quantify this claim. How ought we to measure the biological success of a species?

When I was thinking about this a couple of days ago, without too much effort I could think of six ways in which the biological success of a species might be quantified, and these methods of quantification would yield different results for different species.


1. The biological success of a species could be measured by the absolute number of individual organisms belonging to the species in question.

By this measure, homo sapiens is not the most biologically successful species. For example, at any given time there are approximately 16 billion chickens living on Earth. The title of most numerous organism would probably go to some insect species, or perhaps some marine invertebrate, like plankton. But because each individual of the species homo sapiens is so large, our absolute numbers can be less significant than the total biomass that we represent (see 3 below).

When we think of vast swarms of insects (or even vast swarms of vertebrate mammals) it is obvious that homo sapiens has no monopoly on absolute numbers, and we aren't even talking microbe species yet.

When we think of vast swarms of insects (or even vast swarms of vertebrate mammals) it is obvious that homo sapiens has no monopoly on absolute numbers, and we aren't even talking microbe species yet.


2. The biological success of a species could be measured by the number of distinct biomes in which the species in question has been able to make a home.

By this measure, homo sapiens has a good shot at the title of most biologically successful species, since human beings have inhabited every biome on the planet from equatorial desert to arctic tundra to tropical forest to temperate grassland, but there are probably other species — for example, species of microbes — that have been similarly successful in colonizing diverse habitats.

A map of terrestrial biomes from Wikipedia.

A map of terrestrial biomes from Wikipedia.


3. The biological success of a species could be measured by the absolute quantity of biomass (in weight) represented by the collected members of the species.

In other words, if we could gather up all human beings in a big net and weigh them, if together they all weighed more than another other species (say, for example, more than the weight of all the killer whales in all the oceans of the world, or all the chickens in the world) then we would be the most biologically successful species. By this measure, human beings have a good shot at being named the most biologically successful species in the earth, since human bodies are large, and taken together they constitute a substantial biomass, but this is far from certain. However, being at the top of the food chain virtually guarantees that a more plentiful biomass of primary producers is supporting the later consumers at or near the top of an ecological pyramid.

A biomass pyramid shows the amount of biomass at each trophic level. When energy is transferred from one trophic level to the next, typically only ten percent is used to build new biomass. The remaining ninety percent goes to metabolic processes or is dissipated as heat. This energy loss means that productivity pyramids are never inverted, and generally limits food chains to about six levels. However, in oceans, biomass pyramids can be wholly or partially inverted, with more biomass at higher levels. (Wikipedia)

A biomass pyramid shows the amount of biomass at each trophic level. When energy is transferred from one trophic level to the next, typically only ten percent is used to build new biomass. The remaining ninety percent goes to metabolic processes or is dissipated as heat. This energy loss means that productivity pyramids are never inverted, and generally limits food chains to about six levels. However, in oceans, biomass pyramids can be wholly or partially inverted, with more biomass at higher levels. (Wikipedia)


4. The biological success of a species could be measured by the ability of a given species to alter its habitat for its own use, i.e., niche construction.

This seems like a category contrived strictly for the purpose of making humankind the most biologically successful species, but that is not necessarily the case. Whereas our changes to our environment — like the building of cities — are dramatic, the coevolution of many microbial species with their non-living environment would constitute another, and perhaps more pervasive, example — and an example that has persisted for a far longer period of time. There are also more conventional examples like beavers, who alter their habitat, but I doubt beaver numbers approach human numbers, so that human beings modify their environment far more than beavers, speaking quantitatively.

Homo sapiens has profoundly altered its environment for its own purposes, but there are many ways for an organism to modify its environment.

Homo sapiens has profoundly altered its environment for its own purposes, but there are many ways for an organism to modify its environment.


5. The biological success of a species could be measured by the ability of a given species to inhabit every available ecological niche.

This may not be too different from 2 above, except that a biome and a niche are two very different things, differing in terms of order of magnitude (though, for present purposes, qualitatively similar), so a careful definition would allow us to distinguish this as a category of biological success. Biological success defined in terms of niches is a far more fine-grained account than biological success defined in terms of biomes. Within the biome of, say, tropical rainforests, there will be many niches. Few biological niches are sufficiently robust to support a species as large as a human being, but of those that are, we can quantify whether or not these niches are so exploited as a relative measure of the biological success of the species in question.

A graphic representation of ecological niches from http://www.metafysica.nl/nature/insect/nomos_26.html

A graphic representation of ecological niches from http://www.metafysica.nl/nature/insect/nomos_26.html


6. The biological success of a species could be measured by the ability of a species to supplant and replace other species.

This again sounds like a contrived category provided merely for the purpose of finding human beings to be the most biologically successful species, since we certainly have supplanted a great many species. But this is true of “weedy” species generally, and a careful quantification, once again, would be necessary to determine, so far as it is possible, the exact number of other species supplanted by a given weedy species. This could be defined in more than one way, whether in terms of the total number of individuals of any one species displaced, the total number of species displaced, or the total number of individuals of any species whatever displaced. Each of these formulations is likely to yield a distinct result.


There is, however, a yet more radical way in which we might define the biological success for a species. The biological success of an individual is measured by the success of the individual organism in passing on its genes to the next generation. When this happens the species survives (we could say that it has historical viability, or even existential viability). Obviously, this definition of biological success cannot be used to define the biological success of a species, but it could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to apply to species on the whole, and not just to individuals of a species.

Successful species pass along their genetic material to successor species and in this way continue to be represented in living populations even after extinction.

The biological success of a species, then, could be measured by the genetic information that it passes along to other, distinct species after the species in question itself has become extinct. (When a species goes extinct but leaves direct descendants of a distinct species, this is sometimes called “pseudoextinction,” and the larger taxon to which both species belong is called a “chronospecies”; cf. Hobson’s Choice, Evolution, and Civilization) Death is the extinction of the individual. Extinction is the death of a species. An individual is survived by the offspring that carries its genetic information. Similarly, species that undergo adaptive radiation bequeath their genetic information to successor species. After a given species has become extinct, its relative biological “success” could be measured by the amount of genetic information that it passed along to successor species. In other words, the biological success of a species could be measured by its total contribution to the genetic legacy to the planet.

In this last and most radical sense, homo sapiens cannot be called the most biologically successful species on the planet, and we would not want to earn that title soon, as it can only be conferred upon extinction. Moreover, the institutions of civilization have militated against human adaptive radiation, at least in terms of biology — in terms of social technology, human beings have an impressive legacy of adaptive radiation, and it is just this that has made it possible for us to inhabit as many biomes and niches that we do inhabit. But it is worthwhile to think of our legacy, and our potential legacy, in this context.

In any case, what I hope to have accomplished in this post is to have convinced the reader that we cannot simply assume that human beings are the most “successful” terrestrial species. In order to determine the relative success of a species we would need to embark upon a systematic scientific research program specifically formulated with the intention to analyze the question of what constitutes biological success. To the best of my knowledge, no such research program currently exists. If any reader is in fact so convinced, and decides as a consequence to formulate a scientific research program, that would be the first step toward answering the question of what constitutes biological success.

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