Friday


measuring earth

Traditional units of measure

Quite some time ago in Linguistic Rationalization I discussed how the adoption of the metric system throughout much of the world meant the loss of traditional measuring systems that were intrinsic to the life of the people, part of the local technology of living, as it were. In that post I wrote:

“The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures… did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.”

Perhaps it is not the kind of thing many think of today; most people do not mourn the loss of traditional systems of measurement, but it should be recalled that these traditional systems of measurement were not arbitrary — they were based on the typical experience of individuals in the certain milieu, and they reflected the life and economy of a people, who measured the things that they needed to measure.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, a common visual metaphor submitted souls to the rigors of weights and measures.

In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, a common visual metaphor submitted souls to the rigors of weights and measures.

It is often noted that languages have an immediate relation to the life of a people — the most common example cited is that of the number of words for snow in the languages of the native peoples of the far north. Weights and measures — in a sense, the language of commerce — also reflect the life of a people in the same immediate way as their vocabulary. Language and measurement are linked: much of the earliest writing preserved from the Fertile Crescent consists of simple accounting of warehouse stores.

sumerian tablet

A particular example can illustrate what I have in mind. It is common to give the measurement of horses in hands. The hand as as unit of measurement has been standardized as four inches, but it is obvious that the origins of the unit is derived from a human hand. Everyone has an admittedly vague idea of the average size of a human hand, and this gives an anthropocentric measurement of horses, which have been crucial to many if not most human economies. The unit of a hand is intuitive and practical, and it continues to be used by individuals who work with horses. It is, indeed, part of the “lore” of horsemanship. Many traditional units of measurement are like this: derived from the human body — as Pythagoras said, man is the measure of all things — they are intuitive and part of the lore of a tradition. To replace these traditional units has a certain economic rationale, but there is a loss if that replacement is successful. More often (as in measuring horses today), both traditional and SI units are employed.

horse-hands

Units of measure unique to a discipline

One response to the loss of traditional units is to define new units in terms of a system of weights and measures — today, usually the metric system — which reflect the particular concerns of a particular discipline. Having a unit of measurement peculiar to a discipline creates a jargon peculiar to a discipline, which is not necessarily a good thing. However, a unit of measurement unique to a discipline makes it possible to think in terms peculiar to the discipline. This “thinking one’s way into” some mode of thought is probably insufficiently appreciated, but it it quite common in the sciences. There are, for example, many different units that are used to measure energy. In principle, only one unit is necessary, and all units of measuring energy can be given a metric equivalent today, but it is not unusual for the energy of a furnace to be measured in BTUs while the energy of a particle accelerator is measured in electronvolts (eV).

For a science of civilization there must be quantifiable measurements, and quantifiable measurements imply a unit of measure. It is a relatively simple matter to employ (or, if you like, to exapt) existing units of measurement for an unanticipated field of research, but it is also possible to formulate new units of measurement specific to a scientific research program — units that are explicitly conceived and applied with the peculiar object of study of the science in view. It is arguable that the introduction of a unit of measurement specific to civilization would contribute to the formulation of a conceptual framework that allows one to think in terms of civilization in a way not possible, for example, in the borrowed terminology of historiography or some other discipline.

Thinking our way into civilization

With this in mind, I would like to suggest the possibility of a unit of time specific to civilization. We already have terms for ten years (a decade), a hundred years (a century), and a thousand years (a millennium), so that it would make sense to employ a metric of years for the quantification of civilization. The basic unit of time in the metric system is the second, and we can of course define the year in terms of the number of seconds in a year. The measurement of time in terms of a year derives from natural cosmological cycles, like the measurement of time in terms of days. With the increase in the precision of atomic clocks, it became necessary to abandon the calibration of the second in terms of celestial events, and this calibration is now done in terms of nuclear physics. Nevertheless, the year, like the day, remains an anthropocentric unit of time that we all understand and that we are likely to continue to use.

Suppose we posit a period of a thousand years as the basic temporal unit for the measurement of civilization, and we call this unit the chronom. In other words, suppose we think of civilization in increments of 1,000 years. In the spirit of a decimal system we can define a series of units derived from the chronom by powers of ten. The chronom is 1,000 years or 103 years; 1 centichronom is 100 or 102 years (a century), 1 decichronom is 10 years or 101 years (a decade), and 1 millichronom is 1.0 year or 100 years. In other other direction, in increasing size, 1 decachronom is 10 chronom or 10,000 years (104 years), 1 hectochronom is 100 chronom or 100,000 years (105 years), 1 kilochronom is 1,000 chronom or 1,000,000 years (106 years or 1.0 Ma, or mega-annum), and thus we have arrived at the familiar motif of a million year old supercivilization. Continuing upward we eventually would come to the megachronom, which is 1,000,000 chronom or 109 years or 1.0 Ga., i.e., giga-annum, at which point we reach the billion year old supercivilizations discussed by Ray Norris (cf. How old is ET?).

Defamiliarizing civilization

From such a starting point — and I am not suggesting that what I have written above should be the starting point; I have only given an illustration to suggest to the reader what might be possible — it would be possible to extrapolate further coherent units of measure. We would want to do so in terms of non-anthropocentric units, and, moreover, non-geocentric units. While the metric system is a great improvement (in terms of the standardization of scientific practice) over traditional units of measure, it is still a geocentric unit of measure (albeit appealing to geocentrism in an extended sense).

Traditional units of measurement were parochial; the metric system was based on the Earth itself, and so not unique to any nation-state, but still local in a cosmological sense. If we were to extrapolate a metric for civilization according to constants of nature (like the speed of light, or some property of matter such as now exploited by atomic clocks), we would begin to formulate a non-anthropocentric set of units for civilization. A temporal metric for the quantitative study of civilization suggests the possibility of also having a spatial metric for the quantitative study of civilization. For example, a unit of space could be defined that is the area covered by light traveling for 1 chronom. A sphere with a radius of one light year would entirely contain a civilization confined to the region of its star. That could be a useful metric for spacefaring civilizations.

What would be the benefit of such a system to quantify civilization? As I noted above, a system of measurement unique to a discipline allows us to think in terms of the discipline. Units of measurement for the quantification of civilization would allow us to think our way into civilization, and so possibly to avoid some of the traditional prejudices of historiographical thinking which have dominated thinking about civilization so far. Moreover, a non-anthropocentric system of civilization metrics would allow us to think our way into a non-anthropocentric metric for civilization, which would better enable us to recognize other civilizations when we have the opportunity to seek them out.

What I am suggesting here is a process of defamiliarization by way of scientific metrics to take the measure of something so familiar — human civilization — that it is difficult for us to think of it in objective terms. Previously in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor I discussed how a defamiliarizing process can be a constituent of rigorous thought. In so far as we aspire to the study of civilization as a rigorous science, the defamiliarization of a scientific set of metrics for quantifying civilization can be a part of that effort.

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Saturday


religious traditions

When I find myself among conspiracy theorists and pseudo-science aficionados, I probably sound like the most relentless, ruthless, unforgiving positivist that you have ever heard. But, of course, I’m not a positivist at all. When I find myself among those educated in the sciences, I probably sound like the most woolly-headed philosopher imaginable, who seemingly takes every opportunity to needlessly complicate matters that are perfectly clear just as they are. I am caught between defending science among those innocent of science, and defending philosophy among those innocent of philosophy. In other words, I can’t win. And now I’m going to make my hopeless position worse by taking the conflict (rather, the absence of communication) between science and philosophy into the forbidden no-man’s-land of politics.

My particular dilemma is the result of understanding that science is philosophy; that is to say, science as we know it today, is a particular branch of philosophy (something that I began to explain in A Fly in the Ointment). While it may be grudgingly acknowledged that science has philosophical presuppositions, it is step further to see science as a particular philosophy that is rather less comprehensive than the whole of philosophy. Now, it is true that science has become differentiated from the rest of philosophy because of its practical successes, but its practical successes alone are no warrant for separating methodological naturalism, i.e., science, from the rest of philosophy.

Without philosophy we cannot understand science; philosophy provides both the synchronic and the diachronic context of science. The emergence of science within western civilization is the diachronic narrative of philosophy, and the relations of science to other aspects of the world and human experience is the synchronic context of science that can only adequately be addressed by philosophy. The need for a robust engagement between science and philosophy, as is to be found, for example, in the work of Einstein, is a need that grows out of the philosophical context of science.

Previous epochs of civilization — notably, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — might point to their own pragmatic implementations of philosophy, no less than the successes of the sciences are heralded today. Enormous monumental building projects that still impress us today, symbols of civilization such as the pyramids, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Daibutsu at Nara, and Borobudur, were possible only through the effort of a philosophically unified civilization, and the monuments themselves are monuments to those civilizations and their philosophical bases.

As an example of a philosophical civilization animated from the power elites at the top down to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder I have elsewhere quoted Gregory Nazianzus on the Christological controversies in Byzantium:

“Constantinople is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in which consists the distinction between the Father and the Son; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from nothing.”

Another example might be the reach of stoicism in the Roman empire from the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the slave Epictetus. This philosophical character of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is not limited to western civilization, its predecessors, and successors, but is a planetary phenomenon.

The civilization of India is perhaps uniquely philosophical in the world. India is a civilization-state, and Indian civilization is a philosophical civilization. In this respect, it is markedly different from western civilization, which has no contemporary single state representative, and in regard to philosophy is more narrow and focused.

This can give us a certain insight into western civilization, which is not a philosophical civilization in the sense that India is, but is a fragment of a philosophical civilization. In so far as science is a particular branch of philosophy, and in so far as western civilization in its present form (industrial-technological civilization) is founded upon science as the source of the STEM cycle, western civilization is a philosophical civilization for the particular philosophy of methodological naturalism. Indeed, the very insistence today that science can do without philosophy is an expression of the philosophical narrowness of western civilization.

Much is to be learned from the comparison of the philosophies and civilizational structures of those independent civilizations that can be traced all the way to their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, during which all agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations had their earliest origins. But there is a problem here. In reaction against the imperialism of western civilization since that period once called the Age of Discovery, when Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many others, sailed from Europe and began to survey the world entire, it is now considered in supremely bad taste to compare civilizations. The celebratory model of tolerance is almost universally adopted and every civilization is counted as a special snowflake that has something to contribute to human history.

In my post on The Future Science of Civilizations I noted Carnap’s tripartite distinction among scientific concepts, which Carnap identified as the classificatory, the comparative, and the quantitative. (We note that this typology itself takes a classificatory form, and an entire class of scientific concepts are comparative concepts.) In so far as we understand Carnap’s conceptual schema of measurement as developmental, proceeding in phases so that initial classifications lead to comparisons, and comparisons lead to quantification, all the while gaining in objectivity, Carnap’s schematism of scientific measurement embodies what Edith Wyschogrod called “the quantification of the qualitied world.”

If we take the division of classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts not in a developmental sense but as different approaches to a scientific grasp of the world, then each conceptual method of measurement may yield unique information about the world. In either case, whether we take these scientific concepts of measurement in developmental terms or take each in isolation, comparative concepts have a crucial role to play: either they are a stage in the development of a fully quantitative science, or they yield unique information about the world.

We cannot fully or adequately conceptualize civilization without developing comparative concepts of civilization to the greatest extent possible, but the development and exploration of this conceptual space is severely constrained by the contemporary political proscription upon the comparison of civilizations. In this way, the study of civilization today is unnecessarily yet unavoidably political. In order to frankly and bluntly discuss comparative conceptions of civilization, we are forced to seek artful euphemisms to speak evasively. This is unfortunate for the development of a science of civilization, but it is not insuperable, and the appropriate degree of abstraction and formalization in a fully developed theoretical context may be sufficient to violate this taboo in spirit while leaving the letter of the proscription intact.

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The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

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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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