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What is a species?

I mentioned that I have been reading a book by the natural scientist E.O. Wilson. The book is “The Future of Life” and makes his case for what we would call environmentalism. Specifically he focuses on the rapid, man-caused decline of species throughout the world. I believe he wrote the book as a polemic, something to spur people into action.

And for me, at first it worked. You read about the permanent extinction of one species after another and say, “something must be done.” But then you keep reading and a certain malaise strikes. “Aw fuck it… it sounds like an impossible problem.” How exactly can we control the actions of humanity on a planetary scale. Americans can barely get anything done in their country, much less in Africa.

But I have another troubling thought, one I’m sure will anger any reading environmentalists: What exactly are we saving when we save a species from extinction? Or more to the point, do species even exist?

You might recall me exploring a similar point when talking about the controversy over Nicholas Wade’s book on racial differences. Critics of that book argue that the concept of race (a division which correlates to what is often called “sub-species”) is a man-made concept. From a DNA perspective, there really isn’t much separating a black man from a white man from a yellow man etc. (Curious that the only term there that sounds overtly perjorative is “yellow.”)

Of course this observation can be taken further. All labels are merely that, labels. They don’t correspond to any objective truth built into the universe. All words are subjective, though certainly quite convenient.

So what is a species? As I understand it, what separates different species is their inability to mate with each other. Dogs and cats can’t have kids so they are a different species. There are other species that probably could mate but don’t tend to in the natural environment.

There’s a point in the book where Wilson lists several species that were eradicated from New Zealand (I think.) Among these are several versions of something called a hopping mouse. I have to confess reading this thinking, “Is this really the eradication of several species or one? And even if all the hopping mice are gone won’t we still have plenty of regular mice? Is this the calamity Wilson is making it out to be?”

I realize I sound like an utter douchebag to be saying that, but I understand why people start to glaze over when environmentalists list every species of tree frog on the verge of extinction. Non-scientists think of species as categories like “dog” and “elephant.” But in fact the term applies at a more granular* level.

*I have to pause even here and note that the term granular here is again simply a man-made term with no real meaning. The hierarchy it implies does not exist in an objective sense.

This must all seem like meaningless parsing of words designed to induce analysis paralysis. And indeed I do think we should try and save these animals on the verge of extinction. But I’m starting to wonder in treatises like Wilson’s book do more harm than good.

Ant slavery

I’ve started reading an E.O. Wilson book (can’t remember the name and it’s not nearby) and it has already imparted an interesting fact: Ant species sometimes kidnap young ants of other species and force them into slavery. This site provides some interesting details.

Humans aren’t the only species that have had to deal with the issue of slavery. Some species of ants also abduct the young of others, forcing them into labouring for their new masters. These slave-making ants, like Protomagnathus americanus conduct violent raids on the nests of other species, killing all the adults and larva-napping the brood.

When these youngsters mature, they take on the odour of their abductors and become the servants of the enslaving queen. They take over the jobs of maintaining the colony and caring for its larvae even though they are from another species; they even take part in raids themselves.

Youtube even has a video, though I’m unclear of the source and why the people in it are wearing historical garb.

What is money?

I was talking recently about the illusory reality of ideas, thoughts, beliefs… basically all non physical things. I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that paper money is a good example of this idea.

For example, think of a bag filled with hundreds of 20 dollar bills. People would lust for such a bag, in some cases people might kill for it. But in terms of the materials of such a pile of cash, it’s just some paper and ink – not much different from a pile of Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets. Why does money have this perception of value?

Well, obviously that’s a complex question… too complex to really get into here. We humans have agreed on the concept of money and that it can be used to purchase things and people’s efforts. But there’s something a little disquieting about providing a good or service and only getting some pieces of paper in return. Of course, in civilized society we are fairly confident that the value of our paper will be respected by others; we have faith that its value will be enforced by law.

Money is real in a material sense (the paper exists), but the value is unreal – it’s dependent on people agreeing on it. You could call it a cultural construct. To use my example from before, if everyone on earth died, the value of money would disappear.

Art is also a good example. When Picasso painted his first painting at a professional skill level it probably wasn’t worth much—he was an unknown loser (I think; I don’t know much about his history.) But somehow, 60+ years later that same painting is worth millions. Why? The materials (paper and dried paint) certainly didn’t change, they didn’t become any rarer in the world (probably the opposite happened.) What happened is everyone decided that Picasso was a genius and cubist paintings became a desired style etc. That value of paintings is in the ideas, not the material.

Weird.

Is the Internet not God’s gift to discourse?

Lately I’ve been musing on the the popular practice of promoting interesting online articles by offering a link and some select paragraph sized chunks. I have been as guilty of this as anyone.

The problem, I feel, is that it lets people just read the segmented chunks and not the whole piece and feel like they “got” the article. But that’s often not the case—many articles are a whole greater than the sum of their parts and you have to read the whole thing.

Anyway, I found this piece on the way the internet has fractured our culture to be quite worth reading. I’m going to offer nothing more than the link.

On nudity

I’m the first to admit things are pretty slow around here, mainly as I am assaulted with the problems of life. I did want to note this amusing quote from Shelly Winters on the topic of onstage nudity.

“I think it is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were twenty-two with a great body it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive, religious experience.”

Can learning be fun?

I’ve longed complained about modern education and I’m far from alone. Most people look back on their years of institutionalized learning (in schools, universities, private lessons etc.) as being unpleasant.

But I’m a great fan of learning. I love reading books, consuming knowledge etc. This opens up an interesting question. Why is “education” so painful and “learning” so fun?

I stumbled across an interesting site on teaching guitar and the author has several articles on learning theory. In one he gets tackles this general issue.

It may seem odd then that in the mind of many individuals, the idea of learning has quite negative associations. This springs from two main sources: Parenting and Schooling.

The word ‘learn’ is often used in anger and frustration by parents:

“When will you ever learn / Why can’t you learn / You’d better start learning…
… to behave/ to do as you’re told/ to be sensible/ to sit still/ to be quiet”
…etc. etc. This introduces, from an early age, the idea that learning has an element of duress attached to it.

When your child comes home from school complaining of boredom – it is not learning that has bored him – remember: “Learning opens doors, widens horizons, adds colour to our experience, makes life more interesting.” Rather it is a lack of learning brought about by the less than ideal conditions that modern education systems attempt to operate under.

Although improvements are continually being made to education there remains the basic set of problems that spring from the financial and logistical restraints placed upon schools where typically, one teacher is charged with the task of causing learning to occur in as many as 30 children simultaneously, often in subjects they have little or no natural interest in.

Unfortunately it gets worse. The whole subject of teaching gets mixed in with the subject of control and, where teachers feel particularly vulnerable, outright subjugation.

Both points strike me as spot on. I think part of the problem with education is that it tries to invoke learning when it’s simply not desired. Some kid is digesting a big lunch while dreaming about the girl he has a crush on and he then walks into a class and is supposed to care about the table of elements. Not gonna happen.

Of course, one might argue that the solution is to give kids more control over when they learn. Don’t make them enter their biology class until they’re ready. But with kids being the impetuous and lazy bastards that they are, that method probably wouldn’t work either. Perhaps there’s some middle ground?

To see and observe

I’m the first to admit that blogging has been light around here; just the complexities of real life intruding.

I have been doing a lot of drawing lately and have noticed something interesting. Much of drawing (or any kind of representational artwork) isn’t about technical skill (say, the ability to draw ovoids), it’s about observing. It’s about really understanding what you are looking at or what’s in your head. I was working on drawing a dragon’s head recently and I referred to some picture of lizards to aid me. I started to become conscious of the peculiarities of how lizards are constructed. They really are rather birdlike in their skull shape. In some cases the scales around their jowls are bigger that those around the tip of the nose. I’ve seen this for years but have not been really aware of it. (As Sherlock Holmes once told Watson, “You see but you do not observe.”)

I was drawing the neighbor’s house yesterday and had a similar epiphany. I realized that what I take to be their front door opens into some kind of enclosed yard, not their foyer as I had presumed. Of course I’ve stared at this house for years without realizing this.

It makes one aware of how much we miss when looking at the world.

Why do we draw?

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been getting back into my childhood pastime of drawing comic style art. Musing on this prompted the question: why do we draw? By this I mean: what is the subconscious motivation to spend hours penciling and inking away at various pieces of fantastic and mundane imagery?

It’s an impossible question to answer, but I feel on some level that we feel we take ownership of what we draw. If I draw a fast sports car—as teen boys have done on algebra books for years—I, in some weird way, own that car. If I draw a fantastic spaceship, I again own it. And if I draw a beautiful, buxom woman, I own her as well, even if I am an overweight, pimply dork, as most comic artists are. (To be clear: I am not an overweight, pimply dork. I am quite beautiful.)

I suppose it’s similar to why we write fiction. Most humans have little control over their lives—they can lose their jobs, lovers, friends in an instant. Their economic fortunes are dictated by impossible to understand market forces and governmental whims. They are lost in a violent sea. But they can write; they can create their own worlds and people and control them. That provides at least some small sense of autonomy.

The crimes of animals

I recently came across discussion of the fact that, in medieval times, animals were often put on trial for various crimes. This web page describes such occurrences in detail and includes this delightfully grisly anecdote.

Such was the case on June 14, 1494, when a pig was arrested for having “strangled and defaced a young child in its cradle, the son of Jehan Lenfant, a cowherd on the fee-farm of Clermont, and of Gillon his wife.” During the trial, several witnesses explained that “on the morning of Easter Day, as the father was guarding the cattle and his wife Gillon was absent in the village of Dizy, the infant being left alone in its cradle, the said pig entered during the said time the said house and disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child, which, in consequence of the bites and defacements inflicted by the said pig, departed this life.”

After listening to the evidence, the judge read out his verdict: “We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example may be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed, that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and adjoining to the gallows and high place of execution …”

The pig ate a face! I feel a little less guilty about eating bacon.

The nature of work

There’s a book that came out recently arguing that people are working more than ever and this is causing a rise in anxiety. It certainly seems a sound premise. But I’ve seen few rebuttals saying, no, people are in fact not working more than ever, we actually have more free time. And, when you think about all these stories you’ve heard about people in 1750 getting up at 6 a.m. and working on the farm until dusk it also sounds true. People of the past did not live leisurely lives.

Can both statements be true? I think, in a sense, yes. It comes down to how we work. In the past, you might work a lot but it was a fairly uninterrupted process – you woke up, knew what you were going to do and did it. You might be working a lot but there was a certain flow to it. Nowadays, you might start to work on editing a Word doc, then you get an email saying there’s an emergency and you have to track down a powerpoint doc, then you finish that and you have to get the kids to soccer practice, the you got back to the Word doc and 20 minutes later you need to answer another email, then a call comes in… etc. I’m overstating for dramatic effect, but you get the picture. Though you may be working less in pure volume of hours, it’s a harried, distracted kind of process. And one that probably takes more cognitive energy than running tasks on a farm 15 hours a day.

I have at certain points in my life been in situations where the entire day was spent doing computer work (often for weeks at a time). I would wake up, sit down at the computer and be there all day, aside from eating and bathroom breaks. It sounds awful and in some ways it was but you brain achieves a certain kind of clarity. You can basically ignore all distractions, phone calls email etc. There’s really something almost meditative about that state.