Discovery News recently posted this article about the growing resemblance between human societies and ant colonies. In a recent post I mentioned Dunbar’s number, which is believed to be a limit on the number of social relationships a single person can have, and thus indirectly a limit on group size. Chimpanzee groups typically contain 15 to 150 individuals and are based on personal relationships. The largest human groupings (e.g., cities, nations) can be much larger, and the individuals who belong to them do not need to know each other, which makes us more like ants than chimps in this respect.
I’ve been watching the Ken Burns series on the history of America’s national parks (highly recommended). I’ve noticed how many of the people he interviews or quotes talk about how they love being surrounded by natural settings because of the way it makes them feel. The repeated message seems to be that there is something about nature that resonates in the human psyche. Some recent research indicates that this may be more than a subjective judgement. Spending time outside in nature makes people feel more energetic, according to researchers who completed five separate studies that looked at both actual time spent in natural settings and imagined time in such settings. The researchers took into account the effect of physical activity and the socializing that tends to go on when people are hiking or camping together, and found that the increased energy could not be attributed entirely to these mood boosters. It’s evidently due to something about nature itself.
This is an interesting finding, especially the part about how as little as 20 minutes of time outside in nature during the day can be enough to trigger the energy boost. Indiana University’s master plan for the Bloomington campus involves planting lots of trees, restoring an urban waterway (the Jordan river), and creating more pleasant walking paths. There are a lot of reasons that all of this is a good idea, but maybe part of the benefit to campus inhabitants will be that it makes them feel good to spend time outside among the trees or walking along the river.
This article from Science Daily has more information, and the full article is:
Richard M. Ryan, Netta Weinstein, Jessey Bernstein, Kirk Warren Brown, Louis Mistretta, Marylène Gagné. Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2010; 30 (2): 159 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.10.009.
This video is full of gorgeous images of planet Earth and its creatures, accompanied by music and the gently inspiring words of Richard Dawkins. It’s one of the finer meditations on the human condition that I’ve ever seen. For all its problems, being a bit of conscious matter on this planet is a rare and precious thing.
The group that brought us Earth Hour this past spring is now trying to collect as many “votes for Earth” as possible, to impress upon world leaders that people everywhere would appreciate it if they made serious progress toward addressing global climate change when they meet in Copenhagen next month. As with many of these “speak up” efforts, I don’t know how much difference it really makes, but it couldn’t hurt. Cast your vote at http://www.earthhour.org.
About a month ago I posted a link to a story about humans might have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by enough to cause global climate change thousands of years before industrialization caused the current and ongoing spike in CO2 levels. The mechanism was believed to have been massive burning of forests to clear land for farming. A new paper, however, examines the factors contributing to the rise in CO2 over the last 7000 years. By examining the ratio of two isotopes of carbon in ancient air (trapped in bubbles in ice cores from Antarctica), researchers can figure out, in broad terms, the origin of atmospheric CO2. The results of a recent analysis of nearly 200 samples indicate that human land use played only a small part, and that the pre-industrial rise was mostly natural (due to a natural increase of vegetation after the ice age ended and the effect this had on ocean chemistry). This news story from Science magazine has the details.
This is particularly interesting in the context of a new framework for evaluating the impact of humans on their planet. A team of scientists published an article in Nature this week describing the environmental limits that mark out a “safe planetary operating space.” They identified nine factors (one of which is biological diversity, so at least it’s not entirely about a safe operating space for humans alone). Check out Nature‘s Planetary Boundaries special feature. It looks like at least some of the content is available even to non-subscribers. However, in case that changes at some point, here’s a story from Science Daily.
And while we’re on the topic of the effect we have on our planet, this week New Scientist also published a series of articles on population, at least some of which appear to be available to all.
So here I am back on the blog again. (What do you mean you didn’t notice I was gone? :) To jump back in with both feet, how about I write about climate change?
Recently I ran across this press release about the work of a couple of scientists who have suggested that human influence on global climate might go back much further than the Industrial Revolution. The press release covers a recent paper that follows up on earlier work suggesting that early agriculture was so much more land-intensive than current agriculture that its slash-and-burn practices might well have had an impact on the global climate. Today’s farming methods are much more efficient, so the amount of land under cultivation has dropped, allowing some reforestation (on the other hand, of course, Big Agriculture is also a big user of fossil fuels). Bottom line is that we may have been tweaking the atmosphere long before we started burning coal and so forth.
Our general effect on the environment, in fact, probably goes back even further. This story from Weekend Edition on NPR covers some of the intended and unintended consequences of the activities of groups of early hunter-gatherers. Although part of the message is that we’ve been ingenious enough to make our lives easier and help ourselves survive and thrive in ever greater numbers, the other part is that we sometimes caused big messes even back then.
Finally, here is an editorial from Cosmos Magazine about whether certain aspects of human nature work against vigorous action to address climate change. The argument is that our evolutionary history and culturally based beliefs and practices combine to make it difficult for us to work together to solve a large, complex long-term problem. I am a little leery of any argument that involves a set view of human nature based on evolution, for a number of reasons, but however we got to be this way, it certainly is common (although certainly not universal) for us to put self-interest ahead of the greater good and to ignore the long term in favor of right now. The author offers some suggestions for how to work around these problems in addressing climate change. Some of them seem like good ideas to me, and I’m all for using rationality over instinct and tradition, but I’m not sure how much time we have to learn about “our genetic makeup and why we feel powerless to act” before we have to somehow just gather up our ingenuity and actually take strong, concerted, collective action.
It’s a wise life form that knows enough to take good care of its environment. Does Homo sapiens fill the bill? The jury is still out. This weekend, cast your vote for taking care of Earth by participating in Earth Hour: between 8:30 and 9:30 P.M. on Saturday, March 28, turn the lights off. (In fact, I’d say to consider ramping down your power use as much as possible: shut down the TV, the stove, other appliances, your computer…shoot, don’t even read this blog—just for that one hour anyway.) It’s a symbolic action to call attention to the need to address global climate change. Our species is good at attaching meaning to symbols, and this particular symbol could speak volumes to elected officials. Learn more and sign up at the Earth Hour web site. (I’m happy that Indiana University Bloomington is a flagship campus for this year’s Earth Hour and will be taking action to reduce the university’s power usage during that hour; I hope that’s the start of long-term energy reduction measures on campus.)
One possible way to unify a big-history narrative is to use the theme of growing complexity in the universe. Stuart Kauffman studies complexity and self-organization; in particular, he believes that self-organization might play an important role in evolution, along with natural selection. He has recently written a book, Reinventing the Sacred, about his approach to moving away from a purely reductionist science and toward a science infused with meaning and even a sense of the sacred (a totally naturalistic sense, not a belief in a supernatural being). Kauffman talks about the book in this interview with Salon and has written an essay for Edge.org that’s excerpted from the book.
In the Salon interview, Kauffman says that having a shared sense of the sacred in nature might give the emerging global culture something to converge on (to counteract what he describes as a natural retreat into fundamentalism on the part of some people). This reminded me a bit of what David Christian said about a big-history narrative serving as a secular creation story. However, while what Christian said really resonated for me, Kauffman takes the idea much further, into places I’m not entirely comfortable with. For one thing, Christian noted that he wanted to draw a line between religion and what he was talking about with regard to big history, whereas Kauffman seems to be blurring that sort of line. (And I really don’t know what to think about his idea, mentioned in passing in the Salon interview, that there might be some connection between quantum physics and consciousness.) Still, he makes some good points and some provocative points, and I think the book will definitely be worth reading. (Anyone already read it and have any comments on it?)