June 29, 2011

"Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet" - Book Review

Here on Earth:  A Natural History of the Planet by Tim Flannery, 2011

Australian Tim Flannery is a renowned evolutionary mammalogist and environmentalist who takes a Gaian versus Medean approach to the biosphere and future of Humankind.  He believes that in human affairs and our realtionships with Earth "the survival of the fittest means the survival of none."

There is much of value in this book.  It contains a large amount of evidence for the organic interconnectedness of Earth's crust, oceans and atmosphere - which Flannery calls the three "organs" of James Lovelock's 1965 notion of Gaia - and the degradations Humankind has inflicted upon them.  His discussion of the global, ecological ideas of Alfred Russel Wallace, 19th Century independent originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection, are also informative:  "Wallace realised that while evolution by natural selection is a fearsome mechanism, it has nevertheless created a living, working planet, which includes us, with our love for each other, and our society."

There is much in the book about which I agree with Flannery but I do not share his impatience with the United Nations as a forum for the evolutionary emergence of a global morality and civilization.  We are nevertheless in agreement that a new phase of cultural evolution awaits our species (see my post Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing a Unified Worldview) and this century represents the eye of the needle we must pass through to have a chance of bringing it about.  Flannery writes:

"A globalised human culture, by virtue of its very nature, must subscribe to and support a humanitarian world view in which every person is awarded equal rights.  This is resisted by adherents of religion or culture who believe that they are different from or superior to the rest of us.  These relics of tribalism seek to separate people from each other, often on the basis of dietary restriction, cultural practice or dogma.  To some extent it's understandable.  Tribal ideologies can make us feel special - part of a chosen people* - and to accept the beliefs or practices of others can be challenging.  The roots of social dislocation, cult massacres and terrorism all lie here, and they're all likely to increase for some decades yet as globalisation exposes more and more people to their impact.  This phase of human development is a kind of rocky road that must be traversed before we can reach a more stable state.  Our hope must be that as the older generations pass, new generations born into the globalised world, with new ways of thinking about these challenges of war and poverty, will take their place."

I'm reminded of German physicist Max Planck's views on how new scientific truths become accepted:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

As for the major criticism that is usually given against the Gaian hypothesis (see Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould) - that the planet, unlike other organisms, does not reproduce itself - Flannery writes:

“From her (Gaia’s) birth until now she has been a loosely coordinated entity lacking a command-and-control system – a mere commonwealth of virtue – and therefore unable to regulate herself precisely.  But if the global human superorganism (global civilization) survives and evolves, its surveillance systems and initiatives to optimize ecosystem function raise the prospect of an intelligent Earth – an Earth that would, through her global human superorganism, be able to foresee malfunction, instability or other danger, and act with precision.  If that is ever achieved, the greatest transformation in the history of our planet would have occurred, for Earth would then be able to act as if it were, as Francis Bacon put it all those centuries ago, ‘one entire, perfect living creature.’  Then the Gaia of the classical world would in fact exist.    During this critical period in the evolution of the human superorganism all focus needs to be on Earth.

“Perhaps tells us that we really are alone in the Universe, simply because we are the first global superorganism ever to exist.  After all, it’s taken all of time – from the Big Bang to the present – to make the stardust that forms all life, and to forge that stardust, through evolution by natural selection, into us and our living planet.  If we really are the first intelligent superorganism, then perhaps we are destined to populate all of existence, and in so doing fulfill Alfred Russel Wallace’s vision of perfecting the human spirit in the vastness of the Universe.  If we ever achieve that, the Gaia will have reached puberty, for she will then have become reproductive, nurturing the spark of life on one dead sphere after another.”

But this projection of the Gaian global human superorganism beyond Earth and onto "one dead sphere after another" is dependent on the will of Humankind - specifically, the will of technologically advanced nations who can afford space exploration.  At the moment that will and affordability is lacking, according to a recent article in the Economist:  The End Of The Space Age.

This, however, does not justify concern or worry.  In Gaian terms, one could say that at the present time it is not appropriate to expend scarce resources on space travel and colonization; there is too much work to be done on Earth in terms of building a sustainable global morality and civilization.

Gaia has not yet reached the age of reproduction, says Flannery, primarily because it lakes a global human superorganism, what I call a global morality and civilization.  Extending the Gaian organomorphic analogy further, even if we arrive at a viable global morality and civilization during this century, a monumental task and time frame I agree with Flannery as being imperative, Gaia may still not be ready to reproduce itself elsewhere in the Universe, even if the necessary resources for doing so became available.

In biological terms, a sexually mature female, in this case Gaia once its global human superoganism has emerged, though biological capable of reproduction, may be far from ready to bear and be responsible for offspring.  It may be that the time it will take for Gaia to become reproductively capable, which could be from the Big Bang to the present or from formation of the Earth's crust, oceans and atmosphere to some date in the 21st Century, is the same amount of additional time that will be needed for her to reach young adulthood, a more appropriate time for the highest of all Earth organisms, Gaia, to bear offspring and be a parent.

* I have written elsewhere on the detriments of the contemporary human zeal for cultural (ethnic, national, racial) uniqueness; where the needs of a larger group, or Humankind as a whole, are subordinated to a localized pride, an allegiance, that "makes us (our group) feel special," a "chosen people."  See African Culture and the Emerging Global Morality and Civilization.  An excerpt follows:

"Regrettably, eminent Western scholars such as social anthropologist Eric Wolf continue to encourage scholarly inquiry along the narrow path of particularism in order to 'take much greater account of heterogeneity and contradictions in cultural systems.'  Ideas about regional patterns of cultural, social and psychological adaptation will indeed remain 'perilous ideas', as Wolf calls them, if we continue to follow his advice and avoid these broader processes that in fact define our common humanity and have potential for increasing global unity.  The current mainstream emphasis on particularistic studies of cultures, ethnic groups and social topics, by itself, tends to enhance uniqueness and separateness in people’s thinking.  This, in turn, encourages ethnic groups, societies and nations to stand proudly apart.  Some say it also contributes to an imbalance favoring individualism to the detriment of communal responsibility and involvement.  What is worse is that when particularism is overemphasized without counter-balancing studies of the broad patterns of cultural adaptation that unite us, we risk increasing cross-cultural ignorance, cultural arrogance, xenophobia and isolationism which lead to increased inter-cultural misunderstanding and international conflict.  Perilous ideas, indeed!"


Jaakko Wallenius said...

Hey, Jim. I just had to comment here after I heard about the existence of this, the other Being Human -blog. As I have written a blog with the same name since December of 2007 I can only hope there is room for two excellent, well-written and well-presented Being Human -blogs in the world, at least if my blog is based in Finland.

Jim Lassiter said...

Jaakko, Both blogs "excellent, well-written and well-presented" indeed! : ) Cheers!