Reviewing The Systems View of Life

Zygote Quarterly has just published the review of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, 2014) that I worked on as a co-author.  Like the other review authors, I think it is a useful and important book.  Capra and Luisi have attempted an integrated review of physical, biological, social and cognitive sciences, with some deep-ecology-inspired philosophy and spirituality thrown in for good measure.  It’s a big deal, and I’d recommend it to most readers.

I was very excited about participating in writing a review for the book, and co-authoring a review with a few other people was a very good process.  But there are things I had to say that couldn’t quite fit into the review we were writing together. Below are a few thoughts I had that were edited down or not included in the review.

Bad Anthropology

I did have some real problems with the book, in particular the chapter called “The human adventure.”  Some of these complaints and caveats were included in the review, but others were not, so I give them in more detail here.  Basically, I could have assigned Chapter 11 in an anthropology class as an exercise in looking for things that are either just plain wrong or open to different interpretations for my Intro to Biological Anthropology classes.

I was disappointed by the internal inconsistencies in Chapters 10 and 11 (“The quest for the origin of life on Earth” and “The human adventure”). As mentioned in the review they use some very linear, deterministic metaphors when talking about organismal evolution, despite their accurate and gratifying note in Chapter 9 that the process is NOT linear and deterministic.  For example,“The human evolutionary adventure is the most recent phase in the unfolding of life on Earth…” (p. 240) seems to imply that it was all leading up to us; “The first human species, Homo habilis, appears 4 minutes before midnight, evolves into Homo erectus half a minute later, and into the archaic forms of Homo sapiens 30 seconds before midnight,” (p. 241) ignores the many side branches of hominin relatives that were concurrent with these species.

This part of the book is further weakened by the fact that the authors chose to ignore many broader ecological contexts in which human evolution took place (not to mention all the other organisms evolving since the earliest eukaryotes). Their summary of human evolution also ignores changes to our scientific understanding of bipedalism and its context over the last decade (particularly in the last five years, including the important Ardipithecus ramidus finds).  Other research illuminating the extent of tool use and social learning in other species demonstrates that bipedalism and the “freeing of the hands” is not a pre-requisite for tool manufacture.  All great apes make tools, including the very arboreal orangutans.  Even species without hands, such as bottlenose dolphins and New Caledonian crows, make and use fairly sophisticated tools. (This was a big part of my 2004 dissertation: Orangutan Cultures: Tool Use, Social Transmission and Population Differences.)

Some other debates in evolutionary anthropology that are neglected include the notion of nuclear families and male provisioning in early hominins (p242-3; this has been contentious since the 1980s, and it’s not going away any time soon – I don’t think what they described as “widely accepted” is in fact widely accepted).  Also  on p243 they talk about Homo erectus as the first to leave Africa at 1MYA, but there is an interesting and more primitive hominin at Dmanisi, Georgia dated at about 1.8MYA that has been widely known by anthropologists since at least 2007 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7160/abs/nature06134.html).   Their depiction of European cave art as revealing a recent breakthrough in human cognition is also highly debatable; there is now evidence for other forms of art and similar cultural complexity that predate this in Africa, much closer to the earliest appearance of modern Homo sapiens (a good, accessible reference for this is Shea’s 2011 article in American Scientist www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.11845,y.2011,no.2,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx).

I went back and looked at a similar chapter that Capra had included in his 1996 book The Web of Life, and found that many of the examples in The Systems View of Life‘s Chapter 11 were taken directly from The Web of Life‘s Chapter 10, “The Unfolding of Life” in a sub-section also titled “The Human Adventure.”  A lot has changed in the field of anthropology in 18 years.  I’m disappointed that this wasn’t updated for the new book.

A Living Book-System?

One other thing that was not included in the final version of the book review was an admittedly half-baked notion of how to make something like a book into more of a living system.  This would have solved the problems, such as those with anthropology described above, by opening the writing up for input from scholars working in each field.

At this point the book itself is something of a dead organism, no longer able to dynamically respond to its surroundings (more like a stone than a dog – and can we please transform that otherwise useful distinction between reactions and responses on page 136 to something that doesn’t involve kicking dogs!).  Would this work embody the idea of a living system more readily as some kind of ongoing, tightly controlled wiki, with carefully managed permeability (like the crucial cell membrane), accepting certain incoming additions or replacements of information and rejecting others in order to maintain integrity and exhibit development through interactions with its environment? Such a work (no longer a book, but a kind of intellectual organism), if structured and nourished by careful systems thinkers, could prove even more useful than the book in its current form.

In other words, is there an transformation whereby a “book” can become more biomimetic, and operate in ways that reflect the cognitive and metabolic processes of living systems?

In the conclusion of our review in Zygote Quarterly, we do make a suggestion that readers find ways to engage with the work.  One option is online communities.  I set up a discussion group on Goodreads as one possible forum for this.

I met one of my dearest friends, the late Judy Bloomgardener, when I attended a talk that Fritjof Capra was giving at Bookshop Santa Cruz for the release of 2004’s The Hidden Connections. Judy was making her way through the rows of folding chairs, leaving fliers for starting a discussion group around the book.  I don’t think I actually talked to her then, but I did call the phone number on the flier and join the group.  We continued to discuss that book and many others, with groups as large as a dozen and as small as just the two of us.  These are some of my fondest memories, and I wish I had been able to talk with Judy about this book, too.  I encourage you to read it, and talk about it with your friends.

Biomimicry Design Challenge 2014 Winners

The winners of the 2014 Biomimicry Design Challenge have been announced.  The theme this year was to design something related to transportation.  I worked with a couple of students here at Nanyang Technological University, but we didn’t have a large enough team to really produce anything beyond some intriguing ideas about how to rethink air-conditioning for buses (elephant ears?  gular fluttering? Dimetrodon sails?  honeybee fanning?).  But there were a couple other Singapore groups, and one received a prize for their video on demand-responsive bus systems that work like our demand-responsive digestive systems (there could be a bad pun in here about taking some guts to propose something like that, but that would just be tacky).

I also really like the idea of bike whiskers:

Congratulations to all the teams and their bio-inspired innovations!

 

Interdependence~Independence Day 2014

Re-imagining Independence Day

It’s that time of year again, and I’m an ocean away from my home country.

Of course, I can’t let a Fourth of July pass without remembering my dear friend Joody, and our attempts to articulate and celebrate new thoughts appropriate to such a revolutionary anniversary.  So raise your own flagoccupy your worldget decolonized,  start your own currency and declare something wonderful today!

Again this year, I celebrate and embrace both, entwined as they are in their powerful dance.  I declare Independence ~ Interdependence!

In light of the Independence /Interdependence Day celebration, I found some related links:

A 2012 Declaration of Interdependence (a bit New-Age-y-Self-Help-y, but makes good points):

 

And if you are feeling a bit anti-patriotic, I can recommend some great readings from the Archdruid Report:

(Updated from my 2011 Inter-dependence Day Post, with a little from 2012 and 2013, because recycling is beautiful!)

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Depleted forests force Borneo Orangutans to nest in oil palm estates

Our furry orange friends are just trying to find a place to sleep for the night… they’ve had to go from secure and cozy places where they could make a nice bed for themselves, to the orangutan equivalent of sleeping under a bridge.

Depleting forest forces Orangutans to nest in oil palm estates

Posted on July 1, 2014, Tuesday | Borneo Post Online

SANDAKAN: A new landmark study based in Sabah’s east coast has shown that orangutans in Kinabatangan have no choice but to nest in oil palm plantations as they travel from one forest patch to another.

“These findings have long term implications for the oil palm industry and those working in conservation as we have to look at a larger landscape rather than concentrate only on forested areas,” said Dr Marc Ancrenaz, the lead author of the findings published in Oryx, the international journal of conservation…

“Where were these missing orangutans. We knew they could not have just disappeared from the small forested areas of lower Kinabatangan. So we looked outside the forested areas and what we found, truly shocked us,” said Ancrenaz who is also scientific director of HUTAN-KOCP, in a statement yesterday.

Ancrenaz said the researchers found that orangutan nests within the oil palm landscape within small patches of trees, even single trees.

“The orangutans are not adapting to the oil palm and are using them to find other forested areas. This means the palm oil industry now has a very important role to play to sustain the long term survival of the orangutan population living in Kinabatangan and other agricultural lands in Sabah.”

The study also found the orangutans only used the oil palm plants to nest when they had no access to native trees and usually did not go too far inside with 90 percent detected within 100 metres of the forest edge, although it did find that some had roamed further inside.

Read more:  http://www.theborneopost.com/2014/07/01/depleting-forest-forces-orangutans-to-nest-in-oil-palm-estates/#ixzz36ByM977S

 

 

Video

My take on sustainability, in video form

This morning I took a workshop on producing and editing screencast videos for the “flipped classroom.”  I chose to pursue my usual prey with my PowerPoint.  The results (including goofy headphones and wonderful, wandering workshop instructors) are visible here:

What is Sustainability vid start

 

So yeah, it could use a little more careful editing.  No telling when I’ll get around to making the “next segment” promised at the end.  But maybe it’s not entirely worthless?

And I was taking this training workshop at just the right time, as I’ve just been accepted to give a virtual presentation for the Asian Conference on Education for Sustainability.  I wish I could go in person, but it was a bit too pricey this time, and this way my carbon footprint is much lower.

Cheers!

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In these times of change…

A fascinating new piece,

Want to Change the World? Read This First

by Richard Heinberg was published on Resilience.org.  He moves through important ideas from anthropologist Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism to Heinberg’s own important perspectives on the age of fossil foolishness.  Below are some highlights, but you should really read  the whole thing.

Oil has given us the ability to dramatically increase the rate at which we extract and transform Earth’s bounty (via mining machinery, tractors, and powered fishing boats), as well as the ability to transport people and materials at high speed and at little cost. It and the other fossil fuels have also served as feedstocks for greatly expanded chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, and have enabled a dramatic intensification of agricultural production while reducing the need for field labor. The results of fossil-fueling our infrastructure have included rapid population growth, the ballooning of the middle class, unprecedented levels of urbanization, and the construction of a consumer economy. While elements of the Scientific Revolution were in place a couple of centuries prior to our adoption of fossil fuels, cheap fossil energy supplied a means of vastly expanding scientific research and applying it to the development of a broad range of technologies that are themselves directly or indirectly fossil-fueled. With heightened mobility, immigration increased greatly, and the democratic multi-ethnic nation state became the era’s emblematic political institution. As economies expanded almost continually due to the abundant availability of high-quality energy, neoliberal economic theory emerged as the world’s primary ideology of societal management. It soon evolved to incorporate several unchallenged though logically unsupportable notions, including the belief that economies can grow forever and the assumption that the entire natural world is merely a subset of the human economy.

He means the failure to comprehend:

3REALMSX

…With less useful energy available, the global economy will fail to grow, and will likely enter a sustained period of contraction. Increased energy efficiency [and, as outlined earlier in the article, the lower energy-return-on-investment array of renewable alternatives - ed.] may cushion the impact but cannot avert it. With economies no longer growing, our current globally dominant neoliberal political-economic ideology may increasingly be called into question and eventually overthrown.

And don’t forget:

Choose your assumptions—optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between. In any case, this is a big deal.
*          *          *
We are living at a historic moment when the structure of society (economic and political systems) and its superstructure (ideologies) are about to be challenged perhaps as never before. When infrastructure changes, what seemingly was solid melts into air, paradigms fall, and institutions crumble, until a new societal regime emerges. Think of a caterpillar pupating, its organ systems evidently being reduced to undifferentiated protoplasm before reorganizing themselves into the features of a butterfly. [Not entirely accurate for what happens in butterfly metamorphosis, but close enough. - ed.] What a perfect opportunity for an idealist intent on changing the world!
It’s time to take up the role of doula and assist in the birth of a positive future. Let’s help this come out right!

More Quantification: Religion, History, Education, Literacy

Venturing into even more contentious territory than last week, I’ve compiled some more statistics for my study area.

Asia Religion, History, Higher Education, and Literacy

Some interesting findings in the religious diversity study just completed by Pew Research: half of the most religiously diverse countries are in Asia, and the most religiously diverse place on earth is right here in Singapore.

To capture some tiny summary of the history of colonial influences, I decided to only look at colonizers from outside the area, because power exchanges within the study area would really complicate things.  Of course, some of the more recent colonial issues were with pre-WWII imperial Japan, and various Chinese and Indian populations have been colonizers of other areas for millennia.

The calculation used to determine the percent enrollment in higher education was comparing the number of enrolled students to the population that is “college age” (usually 18-23). I expect South Korea has 101% because of either a fair number of older students (since enrollment includes graduate school) or foreign students who were not counted as part of the population statistic but were counted in the enrollment statistics.

Asia Religion, History, Education, Literacy info table

 

Asia relig hist ed lit data table

I also found a map that shows some of the colonial history.