Nature, Nurture, Torture

Over at Ribbon Farm, Venkatesh Rao has a key theory of human development. Three factors are needed: nature, nurture, and torture. The key, notched and grooved, is the end result. After all of that, you are a real individual, a unique snowflake.

It sounds like another way of telling the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. He is a made object (nature) that is loved by a boy (nurture) until he is worn threadbare and then thrown out to be burned (torture) which leads a magical fairy to turn him into a real rabbit (key). The end.

A similar story is told with Pinocchio or the movie AI, both involving a blue fairy that makes them into real boys. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly also follows this narrative pattern, but instead involves a blue flower that symbolizes what has been sought.

It’s quite a process to become real, if you survive the torture.

* * *

The Key to Act Two
by Venkatesh Rao

Nature, Nurture, Torture

The thing about becoming a key, unless you have a father who can curse you into one at birth, is that you can’t skip the tortures. Nor can industrial processes like cold-forging inflict the necessary kinds of pain. Not all tortures are equally horrendous of course. The truly horrendous ones don’t just carve a unique pattern of notches into you, they destroy you.

But what doesn’t destroy you only makes you uniquer.

Like that kid in Slumdog Millionaire who, through a series of horrifying ooga boogas, acquires exactly the set of answers required to unlock the million-dollar game show prize before he was out of his teens. Like I said, most people take till 40 or so, but some people get lucky, and become keys in nondeterministic polynomial time, which for a human life is anything less than 19 years.

This by the way, suggests, but does not prove, that becoming a key is a human-complete problem.

Here’s a mnemonic to remember this. You’ve heard of nature and nurture, right? Nature and nurture get you to the end of Act I and to the bathroom line in the lobby, but if that’s all you have, you aren’t a key.

Becoming a key is all about nature, nurture, and torture.

Nature is genes. It creates a space of life-script possibilities.

Nurture is some genes liking where they find themselves and choosing to express themselves through epic protein poetry, and other genes going, “fuck this shit, I’m not talking” and retreating into sullen, inexpressive silence. This is a narrowing of life script possibilities from 100% to say 7.8%.

It’s still a large class of behaviors rather than a specific path, because nurture only conditions you to produce behavior patterns, it doesn’t pick out a specific circumstantial path. Nature and nurture together only produce characters waiting for stories to happen to them.

If you understand that much, then my key-lock script can be understood as nature-nurture-torture. The last bit is what turns a character arc into a full-blown plot.

Torture is life experiences breaking you irreversibly in 8 ways, narrowing possibilities further, turning you into a unique key with exactly one life to live. Not a clod, which is what cold forging produces by erasing identity sufficiently to serve interchangeable-parts purposes, but a hardened stand-alone snowflake who doesn’t need a clod to protect them from the world.

Torture narrows life down to one possibility. Becoming a key means you have a shot at actually getting to that one possibility and making it your mission. A life lived with full intentionality, complete insufferability (which you earn through your tortures), and with no angsty what-ifs distracting you.

Harry Potter, for instance, was a 1/8 Chosen One because of that lightning-shaped scar he acquired at birth. The other key notches he had to earn through the first 6 books. Voldemort on the other hand, deliberately forged himself into the antikey with all that horcrux stuff. All that stuff was neither nature, nor nurture. It was key-forming torture.

See, the reason all this scarring and horcruxing is necessary is that nature and nurture are not enough. They leave life in what mathematicians call an under-determined state. And since most people instinctively address under-determination by creating symmetric variable bindings for the unused variables (it’s what you perceive as “beauty”), they foreclose on the option of becoming a key.

Yeah, becoming a key is an ugly business.

* * *

4/3/18 – Some additional thoughts.

Talk of torture reminds me of the oddity of modern civilization, specifically WEIRD societies. Other societies are less obsessed with individuality and some don’t seem to have any kind of identity that exactly equates to the individual self. Western society has required torture as part of the process in creating individuals. Sebastian Junger talks about this in his book Tribe, although I don’t recall him ever referring to ‘torture’ as a way of framing his view. The context is a bit different, but essentially he is contrasting individualism and tribalism, the latter once having been the normal experience of all humans. Rather than torture, he does discuss to great extent the issue of trauma, including in childhood and the consequences it has in adulthood.

Some of the practices that have taken hold in Western societies such as mothers ignoring crying babies is highly abnormal and forms a warped psychology. Instead, babies are given pacifiers, blankets, and stuffed animals (what Donald Woods Winnicot referred to as transitional objects) to teach them to soothe and entertain themselves — and other kinds of objects play a similar role: “Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.” This extreme form of torturous childrearing isn’t seen in traditional societies.

As I said in a comment elsewhere, “I see how the pacifier could be traumatizing to the developing psyche. Self-soothing is like empty calories causing you to eat more and more while never getting what you really need, the end result being obesity and disease. The baby isn’t seeking self-soothing. What the baby wants is nourishment along with maternal love and protection. The pacifier stunts human development by not allowing normal human bonding.” So, torture maybe a necessary component to the individuation of the modern self, but it comes at a high cost for each person and for society. Johann Hari in his recent books (Chasing the Scream & Lost Connections) goes into great detail about the problems caused by the disconnection and isolation of hyper-individualism. The key theory of nature-nurture-torture does explain how to create a modern individual, whether or not that is a desirable result.

Here is my second thought. There is different angle to consider, one that roots the key theory (or elements of it) in the premodern past. Another way of thinking about ‘torture’ is to look to stories, specifically fairytales and mythologies.

The story of Pinocchio is obviously rooted in European paganism and his torturous individuation has much mythological resonance. This is made clear with the blue fairy (the girl/maiden/goat with azure or turquoise hair), a tripartite child-maiden-crone goddess of death-and-rebirth (related to Philip K. Dick’s blue flower of A Scanner Darkly, there was dark-haired Donna who was a manifestation of the author’s favorite archetype, the dark-haired girl who took on many forms as characters in his stories: girlfriend, femme fatale, goddess, savior, etc). It’s similar to Isis as sister and consort to Osiris and then later mother to Osiris reborn as Horus. Pinocchio hung on a tree is an ancient portrayal of crucifixion which typically involved tree imagery (nailed to, tied to, pierced by an arrow below, or hung from).

Blue/azure/turquoise was a sacred color in the ancient world because of its rarity in nature. It is one of the last colors that is given a name in diverse languages, often originally being mixed up with black. It has been theorized that ancient people (e.g., Homer) didn’t even perceive blue as a separate color, not until blue dyes became common. Young children, even when taught the word for blue, will still sometimes mix it up with black.

Pinocchio’s blue fairy is related to the púca, fairies of Celtic religion typically described as black or dark. Fairies often are known as trickster/shapeshifters and sometimes in fairytales get portrayed as witches living alone in a house in the woods. Some goddesses, such as Saraswati, use shapeshifting in the myths about how they gave birth to the beings of the world.

Tricksters have the power of transformation, both within themselves and their effect on others, such as transforming a puppet into a boy or replacing a child with a changeling. They are powerful deities/spirits who are capable of good and evil, often making unclear such distinctions as they precede humanity and human notions of morality. But many tricksters take on roles of cultural heroes and salvific figures. Or else they become examples of moral consequences, as is the case with Pinocchio’s trickster behavior getting him into trouble.

Pinocchio, of course, has some elements of a resurrection figure. This goes beyond his crucifixion and rebirth as a real boy. Like Jesus’ father Joseph, Pinocchio’s father Geppetto is a woodcarver (this is related to the mythological motif of creator/father as a builder). It is Geppetto who calls for the blue fairy and so these two stand in as parents (the father of form and the mother of spirit) to the creation of this new being, Pinocchio.

This is rather fascinating. Let me break down the death aspect in more detail.

The blue fairy is first shown as a young girl and claims to already be dead, waiting for her coffin in a house of the dead. As a spirit-being or goddess of death, she removes Pinocchio from his crucified state on a tree. They become like brother and sister (reminiscent of Isis and Osiris). Later, after her own death and burial with her house having been torn down to become a tombstone, she reappears older and takes on the role of mother to Pinocchio (in the way Isis does in relation to her consort Osiris being reborn as the child Horus) and in that maternal role she offers forgiveness.

The blue fairy ends up dying multiple times in the story, defying death each time with mysterious and unexplained reappearances as being alive again. Her final (or seemingly final) death brings a boon to Pinocchio, in reward for his changed behavior and his growing maturity. He is a real boy becoming a responsible adult, on his way to individuation. But he had to go through extensive torture involving all kinds of suffering and harm along the way. Individuation by way of death and rebirth isn’t for the faint of heart.

Speaking of resurrection, the Christian holy day of Easter was yesterday. That has its origins in paganism. I just wrote about this, but I didn’t specifically mention the Germanic goddess from which comes the name of Easter. I was more talking about the other resurrection mythologies in the Mediterranean world before and during early Christianity. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some crossover or shared influences between Northern Europe and further south. The Scandinavians had trade routes that connected with Egypt in the millennia before the Axial Age — by the way, this included trade of blue glass that was only made in Egypt.

In thinking about Easter, I can’t help noticing the similarity of the name Isis, a virgin mother goddess related to spring and resurrection (her tears for Osiris’ death cause the spring flooding of the Nile and of course that brings back life). Isis was also known as Meri and, as her worship was extremely popular in the Roman Empire, probably was the inspiration for Mother Mary worship, considering many of the early European statues of Mary were originally Isis statues.

Many have talked about the Jesus myth in terms of individuation. That is definitely a story about nature, nurture, and torture. Then Jesus as Christ, following crucifixion and resurrection, is taken by his believers to literally be the key to God’s Kingdom. As Pinocchio the marionette becomes a boy, Jesus the man becomes God. That takes the key theory to a whole new level. It’s not just about the reality of identity but of the world itself. For those who have eyes to see, the Kingdom of God is all around us. We each are made into keys to the Kingdom by partaking of Jesus’ sacrifice through his body and blood, in the form of bread and wine. We take in and internalize that suffering which then magically transforms us and connects us to a greater reality.

Such is Christian belief, anyway. The notion of torture as fulfillment of becoming is an ancient motif. That is true at least since the Axial Age. Similar mythological patterns can be found earlier, but it’s not certain what they might have meant. Prior to the Axial Age focus on individualism, what could development of self involved and toward what kind of self.

Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate

“One of the most striking features of the nature-nurture debate is the frequency with which it leads to two apparently contradictory results: the claim that the debate has finally been resolved (i.e., we now know that the answer is neither nature nor nurture, but both), and the debate’s refusal to die. As with the Lernian Hydra, each beheading seems merely to spur the growth of new heads.”

That is from the introduction to Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (p. 1). I personally experienced this recently. There is a guy I’ve been discussing these kinds of issues with in recent years. We have been commenting on each other’s blogs for a long while, in an ongoing dialogue that has centered on childhood influences: peers, parenting, spanking, abuse, trauma, etc.

It seemed that we had finally come to an agreement on the terms of the debate, his having come around to my view that the entire nature-nurture debate is pointless or confused. But then recently, he once again tried to force this nature-nurture frame onto our discussion (see my last post). It’s one of these zombie ideas that isn’t easily killed, a memetic mind virus that infects the brain with no known cure. Keller throws some light on the issue (pp. 1-2):

“Part of the difficulty comes into view with the first question we must ask: what is the nature-nurture debate about? There is no single answer to this question, for a number of different questions take refuge under its umbrella. Some of the questions express legitimate and meaningful concerns that can in fact be addressed scientifically; others may be legitimate and meaningful, but perhaps not answerable; and still others simply make no sense. I will argue that a major reason we are unable to resolve the nature-nurture debate is that all these different questions are tangled together into an indissoluble knot, making it all but impossible for us to stay clearly focused on a single, well-defined and meaningful question. Furthermore, I will argue that they are so knitted together by chronic ambiguity, uncertainty, and slippage in the very language we use to talk about these issues. And finally, I will suggest that at least some of that ambiguity and uncertainty comes from the language of genetics itself.”

What occurred to me is that maybe this is intentional. It seems to be part of the design, a feature and not a flaw. That is how the debate maintains itself, by being nearly impossible to disentangle and so not allowing itself to be seen for what it is. It’s not a real debate for what appears to be an issue is really a distraction. There is much incentive to not look at it too closely, to not pick at the knot. Underneath, there is a raw nerve of Cartesian anxiety.

This goes back to my theory of symbolic conflation. The real issue (or set of issues) is hidden behind a symbolic issue. Maybe this usually or possibly always takes the form of a debate being framed in a particular way. The false dichotomy of dualistic thinking isn’t just a frame for it tells a narrative of conflict where, as long as you accepts the frame, you are forced to pick a side.

I often use abortion as an example because symbolic conflation operates most often and most clearly on visceral and emotional issues involving the body, especially sex and death (abortion involving both). This is framed as pro-life vs pro-choice, but the reality of public opinion is that most Americans are BOTH pro-life AND pro-choice. That is to say most Americans want to maintain a woman’s right to choose while simultaneously putting some minimal limitations on abortions. Besides, as research has shown, liberal and leftist policies (full sex education, easily available contraceptives, planned parenthood centers, high quality public healthcare available to all, etc) allow greater freedom to individuals while creating the conditions that decrease the actual rate of abortions because they decrease unwanted pregnancies.

One thing that occurs to me is that such frames tend to favor one side. It stands out to me that those promoting the nature vs nurture frame are those who tend to be arguing for biological determinism (or something along those lines), just like those creating the forced choice of pro-life or pro-choice usually are those against the political left worldview. That is another way in which it isn’t a real debate. The frame both tries to obscure the real issue(s) and to shut down debate before it happens. It’s all about social control by way of thought control. To control how an issue is portrayed and how a debate is framed is to control the sociopolitical narrative, the story being told and the conclusion it leads to. Meanwhile, the real concern of the social order is being manipulated behind the scenes. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick.

Symbolic conflation is a time-tested strategy of obfuscation. It’s also an indirect way of talking about what can’t or rather won’t otherwise be acknowledged, in the symbolic issue being used as a proxy. To understand what it all means, you have to look at the subtext. The framing aspect brings another layer to this process. A false dichotomy could be thought of as a symbolic dissociation, where what is inseparable in reality gets separated in the framing of symbolic ideology.

The fact of the matter is that nature and nurture are simply two ways of referring to the same thing. If the nature/nurture debate is a symbolic dissociation built on top of a symbolic conflation, is this acting as a proxy for something else? And if so, what is the real debate that is being hidden and obscured, in either being talked around or talked about indirectly?

Clusters and Confluences

A favorite topic in my family is the personality differences, psychological issues, behavioral traits, and other idiosyncracies among family members. In the immediate family and on both sides of the extended family, there are patterns that can be seen. Some of this might be genetic in origin, but no doubt there is much involving epigenetics, shared environmental conditions, parenting style, learned behavior, etc. Besides, nature and nurture are inseparable, in terms of actual people in the real world.

One example of a familial pattern is learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when younger, but before my generation such diagnoses weren’t common. There appears to be some learning disabilities or rather learning style differences among some of my mother’s family. Another example is a dislike of physicality that was passed down from my paternal grandmother to my father and then to my older brother.

That latter one is interesting. My older brother has always been physically sensitive, like my dad. This to some extent goes along with an emotional sensitivity and, at least in the case of my brother, the physical sensitivity of allergies. His daughter has also taken on these psychological and physiological traits. All of these family members also have a hypersensitivity to social conditions, specifically in seeking positive responses from others.

I, on the other hand, have had an opposite cluster of factors. I was socially oblivious as a child and still maintain some degree of social indifference as an adult. My psychological and social insensitivity, although compensated for in other ways, goes hand in hand with a physical hardiness.

Unlike my paternal grandmother, father, brother, and niece, I am big-boned and more physical like my mother’s family. I even look more like my mother’s family with thicker hair, big feet, a bump on my nose, an underbite, and hazel eyes. About my physicality, it goes beyond just my body type, features, and activity level. I have such a high pain tolerance that I commonly don’t notice when I get a cut. I also don’t worry about cuts when I get them because I’m not prone to infections. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but neither do I have an over-active immune system that leads to allergies.

All of this is the opposite of my older brother. He and his family are constantly getting sick, even as they constantly worry about germs and try to protect themselves. I played in filthy creeks as a child with exposed cuts and was far healthier than my cleanliness-obsessed brother who, when younger, panicked if his new shoes got scuffed.

It’s strange how these kinds of things tend to group together. It indicates a possible common cause or set of causes. That would likely be some particular combination of nature and nurture. I not only take more after my mother’s family for I also spent more time with my mother as a child than did my brothers, since she took time off from work when I was born (I was the third and last child, although fourth pregnancy following a miscarriage). My brothers didn’t get the same opportunity. So, I was also more likely to pick up behaviors from her. Between my brothers and I, only I am able to relate well with my mother. In particular, my older brother’s sensitivity is in constant conflict with my mother’s insensitivity. But I’m used to my mother’s way of relating, allowing me to better understand and sympathize, not to mention be more forgiving, partly because I share some of her tendencies.

Why is one kind of high sensitivity often related to other high sensitivities: emotional, social, pain, immune system, allergies, etc? And why is the opposite pattern seen with low sensitivities? What causes these clustered differences? And how can two such distinct clusters be found among siblings, sometimes even identical twins, who shared many factors?

It makes me curious.

It’s not just conditions like allergies and intolerances. There are similar clusters of neurocognitive, behavioral, and health conditions observed in various immune system disorders, the autism spectrum, fragile x syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other nutritional/dietary/intestinal issues, migraines, ADHD, toxoplasmosis and parasite load, heavy metal toxicity such as lead and mercury, etc. When there is one abnormal symptom or developmental issue, there are often others that show up at the same time or later on. This can involve such things as depression, anxiety, IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, impulse control issues, emotional instability, suicidal tendencies, accident proneness, etc along with more basic issues like asthma, diabetes, obesity, and much else.

In some cases, such as lead toxicity, the causal mechanisms are known as the toxin impacts every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Or consider toxoplasmosis which apparently can alter the rates of personality traits in a population, along with differences in health consequences and social results, whatever is the exact chain of causation. But sometimes the correlations are far less clear and certain in their causal relationship. For example, what is the possible connection(s) between depressive tendencies, anger issues, addictive behaviors, learning difficulties, and physical hardiness among my maternal family?

There was a particular conversation that inspired this line of thought. My parents and I were discussing many of the above issues. But a major focus was on sleep patterns. My brother, like my dad, has a difficulty getting up and moving in the morning. They both tend to feel groggy when first waking up and prefer to remain physically inactive for a long period after. They also both find it hard to fall asleep and, in the case of my dad, a problem of waking up in the middle of the night. My mom and I, however, don’t have any of these issues. We fall asleep easily, typically stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up quickly. So, the difference between sensitivity and insensitivity impacts every aspect of life, even sleeping and waking.

Oftentimes, in our society, we blame individuals for the way they are. We act like people have a choice about how they feel and what motivates them. But it’s not as if because of moral superiority and strength of will that I’ve chosen to sleep well, have a strong immune system, feel physically energetic, and generally be insensitive. No more than I chose to have a learning disability and severe depression. It’s simply the way I’ve always been.

There is obviously much more going on here than mere genetics. And so genetic determinism is intellectually unsatisfying, even as some might find it personally convenient as a way of rationalizing differences. We have too much data proving environmental and epigenetic causes. A recent study could only find a few percentage of genes correlated to intelligence and, even then, they couldn’t prove a causal connection. The same thing is seen with so much other correlation research. The way various clusters form, as I argue, implies a complex web of factors that as of yet we don’t come close to understanding.

One intriguing connection that has been found is that between the brain and the gut. There are more neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system (the enteric nervous system) than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. This is often called the “second brain,” but in evolutionary terms it was the earliest part of the brain. This is why there has been proven such a close relationship between intestinal health, diet, nutrition, microbiome, neurotransmitters, and mood. The human brain isn’t limited to the skull. The importance of this is demonstrated by introducing a new microbiome into the gut which can lead to physiological and pyschological changes.

Much else, however, remains a mystery. Seemingly minor changes in initial conditions, even epigenetic changes from prior generations, can lead to major changes in results. There can be a cascade of effects that follow. As I’ve previously stated, “This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.”

Later conditions can either lessen or exacerbate these results. Even epigenetics, by way of altered environmental conditions, can be switched back the opposite direction in a single generation with results that we know little about. Now consider the complexity of reality where there are millions of factors involved, with only a tiny fraction of those factors having been discovered and studied in scientific research. Those multitudinous factors act in combined ways that couldn’t be predicted by any single factor. All of this has to be kept in mind at the very moment in history when humans are ignorantly and carelessly throwing in further factors with unknown consequences such as the diversity of largely untested chemicals in our food and other products, not to mention large-scale environmental changes.

We don’t live at a society ruled by the precautionary principle. Instead, our collective ignorance makes us even more brazen in our actions and more indifferent to the results. The measured increase in certain physical and mental health conditions could be partly just an increase in diagnosis, but it’s more probable that at least some of the increase is actual. We are progressing in some ways as a society such as seen with the Moral Flynn Effect, but this is balanced by an Amoral Flynn Effect along with many other unintended consequences.

Along with this, our society has a lack of appreciation for the larger context such as historical legacies and a lack of respect for the power of larger forces such as environmental conditions. We are born into a world created by others, each generation forming a new layer upon the ground below. We are facing some tough issues here. And we aren’t prepared to deal with them.

As individuals, the consequences are laid upon our shoulders, without our realizing all that we have inherited and have had externalized onto our lives, as we grow up internalizing these realities and coming to identify with them. Each of us does the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, but in the process we get more praise and blame than we deserve. The individual, as the product of collective forces, is the ultimate scapegoat of society. The lives we find ourselves in are a confluence of currents and undercurrents, the interference pattern of waves. Yet, in our shared ignorance and incomprehension, we are simply who we are.

* * * *

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us
Weak Evidence, Weak Argument: Race, IQ, Adoption
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
What do we inherit? And from whom?
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
The Desperate Acting Desperately
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Plowing the Furrows of the Mind
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

Self, Other, & World

The New Science of the Mind:
From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
Kindle Locations 54-62

The new way of thinking about the mind is inspired by, and organized around, not the brain but some combination of the ideas that mental processes are (1) embodied, (2) embedded, (3) enacted, and (4) extended. Shaun Gallagher has referred to this, in conversation, as the 4e conception of the mind.4 The idea that mental processes are embodied is, very roughly, the idea that they are partly constituted by, partly made up of, wider (i.e., extraneural) bodily structures and processes. The idea that mental processes cesses are embedded is, again roughly, the idea that mental processes have been designed to function only in tandem with a certain environment that lies outside the brain of the subject. In the absence of the right environmental mental scaffolding, mental processes cannot do what they are supposed to do, or can only do what they are supposed to so less than optimally. The idea that mental processes are enacted is the idea that they are made up not just of neural processes but also of things that the organism does more generally-that they are constituted in part by the ways in which an organism ism acts on the world and the ways in which world, as a result, acts back on that organism. The idea that mental processes are extended is the idea that they are not located exclusively inside an organism’s head but extend out, in various ways, into the organism’s environment.

On animism, multinaturalism, & cosmopolitics
by Adrian J Ivakhiv

If, as Latour argues, we are no longer to rely on the singular foundation of a nature that speaks to us through the singular voice of science, then we are thrown into a world in which humans are thought to resemble, in some measure, all other entities (think Darwin alongside Amazonian shamanism) and to radically differ, though in ways that are bridgeable through translation. This would be a world that demands an ontological politics, or a cosmopolitics, by which the choices open to us with respect to the different ways we can entangle ourselves with places, non-humans, technologies, and the material world as a whole, become ethically inflected open questions.

Can “Late Antiquity” Be Saved?
by Philip Rousseau

This issue of a Eurocentric “take” on the late Roman world now finds itself swept up into what has been termed the “ontological turn,” which I suppose is where the “new humanities” come in. More and more people are becoming familiar with this debate. It centers chiefly on a conviction that, in any one place at any one time, the people alive there and then had a sense of “reality” — a word we’re quite rightly not entirely happy with — that was unique to themselves. Indeed, more than a sense: their understanding of “that which is the case” was not simply a symbolizing reaction to a set of experiences that we otherwise share with them although respond to differently — that is, the material, anthropocentric, individualized world that we tend to suppose has always been “out there.” They (like many now) lived in a world (rather than just in a frame of mind) that was itself totally different from the world that we (whoever “we” are) experience. Actually (another tell-tale word), phenomenology, cognitive science, and quantum physics, if nothing else, have shown us what a far from enduring particularity the “out there” world is.

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

Our discipline’s grand historicist project, its commitment to producing a kind of cumulative biography of our species, imposes strict limits on the kinds of stories we can tell about the past. Most immediately, our histories must locate all of humanity’s diverse lifeworlds within the bounds of a single, universal “real world” of time, space, and experience. To do this, they must render experiences in all those past lifeworlds duly commensurable and mutually intelligible. And to do this, our histories must use certain commonly accepted models and categories, techniques and methods. The fundamental problem here is that all of these tools of our practice presuppose a knowledge of experience that is far from universal, as postcolonial theorists and historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have so well observed. In effect, these devices require us to “translate” the experiences of all past lifeworlds into the experiences of just one lifeworld, namely those of a post-Enlightenment “Europe,” the world of our own secular, capitalist modernity. In so doing, they actively limit our ability to represent the past’s many non-secular, non-capitalist, non-modern “ways of being
human.” […]

This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.”
12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.

Beyond Nature and Culture
by Philippe Descola
Kindle Locations 241-262.

Not so very long ago one could delight in the curiosities of the world without making any distinction between the information obtained from observing animals and that which the mores of antiquity or the customs of distant lands presented. “Nature was one” and reigned everywhere, distributing equally among humans and nonhumans a multitude of technical skills, ways of life, and modes of reasoning. Among the educated at least, that age came to an end a few decades after Montaigne’s death, when nature ceased to be a unifying arrangement of things, however disparate, and became a domain of objects that were subject to autonomous laws that formed a background against which the arbitrariness of human activities could exert its many-faceted fascination. A new cosmology had emerged, a prodigious collective invention that provided an unprecedented framework for the development of scientific thought and that we, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, continue, in a rather offhand way, to protect. The price to be paid for that simplification included one aspect that it has been possible to overlook, given that we have not been made to account for it: while the Moderns were discovering the lazy propensity of barbaric and savage peoples to judge everything according to their own particular norms, they were masking their own ethnocentricity behind a rational approach to knowledge, the errors of which at that time escaped notice. It was claimed that everywhere and in every age, an unchanging mute and impersonal nature established its grip, a nature that human beings strove to interpret more or less plausibly and from which they endeavored to profit, with varying degrees of success. Their widely diverse conventions and customs could now make sense only if they were related to natural regularities that were more or less well understood by those affected by them. It was decreed, but with exemplary discretion, that our way of dividing up beings and things was a norm to which there were no exceptions. Carrying forward the work of philosophy, of whose predominance it was perhaps somewhat envious, the fledgling discipline of anthropology ratified the reduction of the multitude of existing things to two heterogeneous orders of reality and, on the strength of a plethora of facts gathered from every latitude, even bestowed upon that reduction the guarantee of universality that it still lacked. Almost without noticing, anthropology committed itself to this way of proceeding, such was the fascination exerted by the shimmering vision of “cultural diversity,” the listing and study of which now provided it with its raison d’être. The profusion of institutions and modes of thought was rendered less formidable and its contingency more bearable if one took the view that all these practices— the logic of which was sometimes so hard to discover— constituted so many singular responses to a universal challenge: namely, that of disciplining and profiting from the biophysical potentialities offered by bodies and their environment.

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins
p. 2

In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.

The Habitus Process
A Biopsychosocial Conception
By Andreas Pickel

The habitus-personality complex is linked (at the top) to a social system. As I have proposed earlier, habitus is an emergent property of a social system. The habitus-personality complex is also linked (at the bottom) to a biopsychic system which generates a personality as an emergent property. Thus there is a bottom-up causality and a top-down causality at work. The habitus-personality complex, while composed of two emergent properties (bottom-up: personality; top down: habitus), can also be seen as a process. In this view, the habitus mechanism refers to the working of system-specific patterns of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting, while the personality mechanism refers to individual forms of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting. The two simultaneously operating mechanisms produce self-consciousness and identity, and what Elias calls the “we”-“I” balance in a personality (Elias 1991).

How Forests Think:
Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
By Eduardo Kohn
p. 6

Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. The goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans— language, culture, society, and history— and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans.

Vibrant Matter:
A Political Ecology of Things
by Jane Bennett
pp. 8-10

I may have met a relative of Odradek while serving on a jury, again in Baltimore, for a man on trial for attempted homicide. It was a small glass vial with an adhesive-covered metal lid: the Gunpowder Residue Sampler. This object/ witness had been dabbed on the accused’s hand hours after the shooting and now offered to the jury its microscopic evidence that the hand had either fired a gun or been within three feet of a gun firing. Expert witnesses showed the sampler to the jury several times, and with each appearance it exercised more force, until it became vital to the verdict. This composite of glass, skin cells, glue, words, laws, metals, and human emotions had become an actant. Actant, recall, is Bruno Latour’s term for a source of action; an actant can be human or not, or, most likely, a combination of both. Latour defines it as “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general.” 24 An actant is neither an object nor a subject but an “intervener,” 25 akin to the Deleuzean “quasi-causal operator.” 26 An operator is that which, by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event. Actant and operator are substitute words for what in a more subject-centered vocabulary are called agents. Agentic capacity is now seen as differentially distributed across a wider range of ontological types. This idea is also expressed in the notion of “deodand,” a figure of English law from about 1200 until it was abolished in 1846. In cases of accidental death or injury to a human, the nonhuman actant, for example, the carving knife that fell into human flesh or the carriage that trampled the leg of a pedestrian— became deodand (literally, “that which must be given to God”). In recognition of its peculiar efficacy (a power that is less masterful than agency but more active than recalcitrance), the deodand, a materiality “suspended between human and thing,” 27 was surrendered to the crown to be used (or sold) to compensate for the harm done. According to William Pietz, “any culture must establish some procedure of compensation, expiation, or punishment to settle the debt created by unintended human deaths whose direct cause is not a morally accountable person, but a nonhuman material object. This was the issue thematized in public discourse by . . . the law of deodand.” 28

There are of course differences between the knife that impales and the man impaled, between the technician who dabs the sampler and the sampler, between the array of items in the gutter of Cold Spring Lane and me, the narrator of their vitality. But I agree with John Frow that these differences need “to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being. It’s a feature of our world that we can and do distinguish . . . things from persons. But the sort of world we live in makes it constantly possible for these two sets of kinds to exchange properties.” 29 And to note this fact explicitly, which is also to begin to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally, is to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility.

pp. 20-21

Thing-power perhaps has the rhetorical advantage of calling to mind a childhood sense of the world as filled with all sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not. It draws attention to an efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes they express or serve. Thing-power may thus be a good starting point for thinking beyond the life-matter binary, the dominant organizational principle of adult experience. The term’s disadvantage, however, is that it also tends to overstate the thinginess or fixed stability of materiality, whereas my goal is to theorize a materiality that is as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension. Here the term out-side may prove more apt. Spinoza’s stones, an absolute Wild, the oozing Meadowlands, the nimble Odradek, the moving deodand, a processual minerality, an incalculable nonidentity— none of these are passive objects or stable entities (though neither are they intentional subjects). 1 They allude instead to vibrant materials.

A second, related disadvantage of thing-power is its latent individualism, by which I mean the way in which the figure of “thing” lends itself to an atomistic rather than a congregational understanding of agency While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.

Animism – The Seed Of Religion
by Edward Clodd
Kindle Locations 363-369

In the court held in ancient times in the Prytaneum at Athens to try any object, such as an axe or a piece of wood or stone which, independent of any human agency, had caused death, the offending thing was condemned and cast in solemn form beyond the border. Dr. Frazer cites the amusing instance of a cock which was tried at Basle in 1474 for having laid an egg, and which, being found guilty, was burnt as a sorcerer. ” The recorded pleadings in the case are said to be very voluminous.” And only as recently as 1846 there was abolished in England the law of deodand, whereby not only a beast that kills a man, but a cart-wheel that runs over him, or a tree that crushes him, were deo dandus, or ” given to God,” being forfeited and sold for the poor. The adult who, in momentary rage, kicks over the chair against which he has stumbled, is one with the child who beats the door against which he knocks his head, or who whips the ” naughty ” rocking-horse that throws him.

Architectural Agents:
The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings
by Annabel Jane Wharton
Kindle Locations 148-155

The deodand was common in medieval legal proceedings. Before the recognition of mitigating circumstances and degrees of murder and manslaughter, causing the death of a person was a capital offense. At that time the deodand may well have functioned as a legal ploy by which the liability for a death might be assessed in a just manner. Although the deodand seems to have almost disappeared in England by the eighteenth century, the law was revived in the nineteenth century. With industrialization the deodand was redeployed as a means of levying penalties for the many deaths caused by mechanical devices, particularly locomotives. 9 Legislation was passed to protect industrial interests, and the deodand was eliminated by an act of Parliament in 1846. Premodern intuitions about the animation of things allowed those things a semblance of the moral agency associated with culpability. With the rational repression of that intuition in modernity, the legal system required revision.

Kindle Locations 245-253

Now, as in the past, buildings may be immobile, but they are by no means passive. Our habitus— the way we live in the world— is certainly informed by our relations with other human beings. 24 But spatial objects also model our lives. Some structures, like Bentham’s infamous Panopticon, are insidiously manipulative. 25 But most buildings, like most people, can both confirm our familiar patterns of behavior and modify them. We build a classroom to accommodate a certain kind of learning; the classroom in turn molds the kind of learning that we do or even that we can imagine. Modifications in the room might lead to innovations in teaching practices. Buildings, in this sense, certainly have social agency. Indeed, the acts of buildings may be compared with the acts of their human counterparts insofar as those acts are similarly overdetermined— that is, fraught with more conditions in their social circumstances or individual histories than are necessary to account for the ways in which they work.

Hyperobjects:
Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
by Timothy Morton
Kindle Locations 547-568

While hyperobjects are near, they are also very uncanny. Some days, global warming fails to heat me up. It is strangely cool or violently stormy. My intimate sensation of prickling heat at the back of my neck is only a distorted print of the hot hand of global warming. I do not feel “at home” in the biosphere. Yet it surrounds me and penetrates me, like the Force in Star Wars. The more I know about global warming, the more I realize how pervasive it is. The more I discover about evolution, the more I realize how my entire physical being is caught in its meshwork. Immediate, intimate symptoms of hyperobjects are vivid and often painful, yet they carry with them a trace of unreality. I am not sure where I am anymore. I am at home in feeling not at home. Hyperobjects, not some hobbit hole, not some national myth of the homeland, have finally forced me to see the truth in Heidegger.

The more I struggle to understand hyperobjects, the more I discover that I am stuck to them. They are all over me. They are me. I feel like Neo in The Matrix, lifting to his face in horrified wonder his hand coated in the mirrorlike substance into which the doorknob has dissolved, as his virtual body begins to disintegrate. “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” The mirror itself has become part of my flesh. Or rather, I have become part of the mirror’s flesh, reflecting hyperobjects everywhere. I can see data on the mercury and other toxins in my blood. At Taipei Airport, a few weeks after the Fukushima disaster, I am scanned for radiation since I have just transited in Tokyo. Every attempt to pull myself free by some act of cognition renders me more hopelessly stuck to hyperobjects. Why?

They are already here. I come across them later, I find myself poisoned with them, I find my hair falling out. Like an evil character in a David Lynch production, or a ghost in M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, hyperobjects haunt my social and psychic space with an always-already. My normal sense of time as a container, or a racetrack, or a street, prevents me from noticing this always-already, from which time oozes and flows, as I shall discuss in a later section (“ Temporal Undulation”). What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. 2 Hyperobjects are agents. 3 They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity.

We haven’t thought this way about things since the days of Plato.

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate

The other day, I was directed (by my friend Charles W. Abbot) to an article about cities and ambition. I wrote about that article and this is a continuation of my thoughts. The discussion I’ve had with Charlie has been ongoing and he linked to yet another thoughtful piece. The second article is about the power of environmental influences:

The idea of zero parental influence
by Judith Rich Harris

Harris asks, is this idea dangerous? Is it false?

“A confession: When I first made this proposal ten years ago, I didn’t fully believe it myself. I took an extreme position, the null hypothesis of zero parental influence, for the sake of scientific clarity. Making myself an easy target, I invited the establishment — research psychologists in the academic world — to shoot me down. I didn’t think it would be all that difficult for them to do so. It was clear by then that there weren’t any big effects of parenting, but I thought there must be modest effects that I would ultimately have to acknowledge.

“The establishment’s failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers hadn’t yet found proof that “parents do shape their children,” but she was still convinced that they will eventually find it, if they just keep searching long enough.”

Her conclusion is damning:

“And what has all this sacrifice and effort on the part of parents bought them? Zilch. There are no indications that children today are happier, more self-confident, less aggressive, or in better mental health than they were sixty years ago, when I was a child — when homes were run by and for adults, when physical punishment was used routinely, when fathers were generally unavailable, when praise was a rare and precious commodity, and when explicit expressions of parental love were reserved for the deathbed.

“Is my idea dangerous? I’ve never condoned child abuse or neglect; I’ve never believed that parents don’t matter. The relationship between a parent and a child is an important one, but it’s important in the same way as the relationship between married partners. A good relationship is one in which each party cares about the other and derives happiness from making the other happy. A good relationship is not one in which one party’s central goal is to modify the other’s personality.

“I think what’s really dangerous — perhaps a better word is tragic — is the establishment’s idea of the all-powerful, and hence all-blamable, parent.”

This past decade, Harris has written two books that I plan on reading:

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

She challenges the whole nature versus nurture paradigm. In the first book, she focuses on the nurture side in order to show its true complexity. In the second book, she looks at all the angles.

If you add in the criticisms many others have made of the genetics research, you’ll realize how many of our assumptions have been wrong in this society (I’ve read about this a lot in terms of race and ethnicity). It turns out it is much harder to actually prove genetic correlations are causation.

Take twins for example. There is no way to control for their shared experience in the womb and early childhood. Nutrition, pollution/toxicity, stress, etc has powerful impact on early development, from fetal to childhood development. Plus, there are environmental factors such as growing up in the same class, neighborhood, city, region, etc; there is the shared media influences as well; and there are factors of having the same race and appearances which influences how people treat you.

No one has any realistic conclusion about how much genetics influences twins. We know even less about genetic influences on people in general. There is no doubt genetics plays a role in a very complicated process, but it is clear that beyond some physical traits there are probably few (if any) traits that are directly and/or solely caused by a single gene and nothing else.

Science is in the middle of a paradigm revolution. The centuries old dualistic model of nature vs nurture, especially in the form of genetic determinism vs parental influence, is being shook at its foundation. It no longer is a debate of either/or, but what greater theory that is arising from improved research.

We presently don’t have a language to speak about this developing view. Too much is still up in the air. It will take decades for it to settle out into a new consensus. Until then, we should speak with the utmost care and not let our desire for certainty to overreach what can presently be known.

Some might find this disconcerting or even unacceptable. It isn’t just ideologues who are being challenged. Scientists too are being challenged. All of society is being challenged because the challenge is to the very ground of our human nature. A lot of this research has happened just this past decade and still is barely beginning to filter into mainstream awareness.

Also, it’s going along with a larger shift in our society which I’ve noted before in relation to climate science and biblical studies. Combined with shifts in majorities developing in support of such things as drug legalization/decriminalization, gay marriage, etc and the challenge we face is immense. We are living in an era that might turn out to be equivalent to the Enlightenment Age or the Axial Age. Nothing may remain unturned.

I see these shifts and trends, but I don’t know much more than anyone else. I just pay attention to diverse info and recognize some important changes are happening, however it may add up. Maybe this is part of a greater turning of events or maybe not. That is what makes it exciting. Possibilities are opening up, possibilities of knowledge and possibilities of technology, possibilities of social change and possibilities not yet imagined.

How these possibilities will or will not manifest depends on many things, including our response to them. We could use this opportunity to try to re-create the past, shore up the old order, and salvage what is left of the crumbling paradigm. But that would be a waste of a rare and maybe fleeting opportunity. I’d recommend loosening our grip on perceived certainties and reaching forward into the unknown, the greatest unknown being human nature.

* * * *

I noticed two other books I’d like to read by Jay Joseph:

The Gene Illusion – Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology Under the Microscope

The Missing Gene: Psychiatry, Heredity, And the Fruitless Search for Genes

Midwestern Green

The Midwest is a very green place. There is good reason that this is called the breadbasket of the world.

Growing up in the region, I never realized how different are large sections of the country. That changed when I moved to South Carolina. The soil, instead of dark and rich, is sand and clay. The woods, instead of thick and lush, is sparse and dry.

The stark contrast didn’t really hit me, though, until I moved back to Iowa after high school. Now, I’ve been living in Iowa for a few years shy of two decades. I have once again grown accustomed to the green.

I’m looking outside at my parent’s backyard. The flower beds are full. The lawn is a deep carpet. The woods at the back is a solid wall of foliage. It is green upon green, endless green. It is life frothing at the bit. I’m in the city and yet life surrounds me. Bunnies and squirrels and a thousand birds tweeting.

This all hit me again because of my recent road trip out West along a more southernly route to the coast. The Southwest for damn sure is dry. Even the Bay Area of California can’t compete with the summertime brilliance of the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

There were only two small areas we visited that would be comparable: far down in the canyon of Zion National Park and halfway down the Grand Canyon in Indian Gardens. A stream flows through the Zion canyon. However, despite the relative greenness, there was no apparent life in the stream itself… which I thought very strange. Indian Gardens is an even smaller area. The smaller area coincides with a concentration of life. It is an island amidst dry rocky terrain.

It wasn’t just life or lack thereof that stood out to me. I was sometimes surprised by what kinds of life I saw, what kinds I didn’t see and where.

Down in Indian Gardens, I saw Box Elder bugs. I saw those little critters several different places where one wouldn’t expect them. They weren’t present in the massive swarms I’d see as a child here in Iowa. But how did they end up at all in Indian Gardens? What strange wind blew them across the surrounding arid land?

At a rest stop in the middle of desert, there was a few trees and a leaking faucet. A flock of pigeons lived there. After some travelers got up from the picnic table, the pigeons cleaned up the crumbs. Pigeons in the desert? Probably hundreds of miles of dust and rock in all directions, but that man-made oasis was able to support a decent sized population of non-desert creatures. I’d assume those poor pigeons were trapped there. Once again, what strange wind?

So, what didn’t I see?

I’m sure there were rabbits somewhere in the various areas I went, at least jackrabbits if nothing else, but I didn’t see them. Here in the Midwest, little bunnies are like flies on shit… and they breed like, well, rabbits. Another animal common in Eastern United States are domestic cats, whether pet cats being let outside or strays. There is a large stray cat population in this neighborhood. There were even quite a few cats down in South Carolina, despite there not being as many rabbits for them to feast upon. Out West, I only saw one cat the entire time.

There was only one animal that I saw in many different places. Deer. They seem to be versatile creatures. North, South, East, West. There are deer everywhere. If you see one of them, there are probably a dozen more nearby.

Coming back to the Midwest after the trip, everything was greener than when I left. It was greener in my perception because I had been away from it, but it also was literally greener because it had rained a lot in the meantime. We had drought conditions last year. We are far from having a drought right now. Farmers lost crops last season, but the Midwest is now back in business.

I’ve known many people from many places. People tend to like the place they came from. My South Carolina friend thought the woods there was beautiful, but not I. Green, deep dark green. That is what I like. Green is life. The more green the better.

Iowa State Parks: Past and Present

Here is the sad result of living in a farming state with the richest soil in the world. I can only assume that this is mostly a result of the transition from small family farms to big agribusiness. The following is from “State Park Paths 2013” by Mark S. Edwards, formerly for 30 years the Trails Coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources:

Iowa started our state park system around the early 1900’s because there was so little left undisturbed. Even before we could designate these areas as parks they had been clear-cut, mined, plowed and heavily grazed. Iowa struggled through the 1930’s Great Depression, along with dust bowl days, unimaginable droughts and economic collapse to expand a state park system for all Iowans.

“By 1937 we lead the nation in the establishment of state parks. Today we compete with one other state for the very bottom in state parks and public lands. We are the most biologically changed place in North America. Roughly 98% of Iowa’s 36 million acres have been altered for agricultural use, cities, and roads.

“There are no old growth forests left to study or enjoy. We drained 98% of our wetlands, cut 80% of the trees, and plowed up 99.9% of our prairies. We have the most polluted surface water, the least species diversity and are at the bottom in environmental spending in the nation. This makes these parks very, very special not only for people but for the remaining critters.

“If we combined all our state parks together in one place we have 55,871 acres or a square just over nine miles on a side, a short day’s walk. The city of Des Moines covers 71,000 acres or a square about ten10 and half miles on a side.Urban sprawl in Iowa alone has increased 50,000 acres in the last ten years. Farmers converted around 50,000 acres of grassland, scrubland and wetlands from 2008 to 2011.”

Man vs Nature, Man vs Man (part 2)

This post is in response to comments that can be found at my last post.
 – – –
I don’t know your exact position on this issue, but let me clear about mine. It’s obvious that American society doesn’t offer an equality of opportunity, much less equality of results. Just look at the enduring systemic and institutionalized racism in all parts of our society.
The invocation of the ideology of equal opportunity is too often used as a magical incantation to dispel fear of a world with real equality. It’s not about perfect results, but it’s a sad state of affairs when abstract ideology is used to rationalize away real problems. I noticed this dichotomy within libertarianism. There are deontological libertarians who argue on moral grounds and there are consequentialist libertarians who supposedly argue based on results. The tricky part is that the results argued for are to varying degrees hypothetical since there has never been a libertarian country as far as I know, at least not in the modern era. So, in reality, the consequentialist libertarians are just deontological libertarians who defer into the future the obligation of moral justification. They get to argue for equality of opportunity without having to show any real world results that their ideology leads to even a semblance of equality for actual people living here and now.

You ask “Equality OF WHAT!!” I can respond with Equal Opportunity OF WHAT!! This is the difference. Equality of opportunity is too often an abstraction whereas equality of results can be concretely measured. Equality is something we aspire to even though it is never achieved absolutely. Also, to the extent that equal opportunity is more than mere abstract ideology, it can only be proven by its results. If an abstract ideology never leads to results, it is a less than worthless and possibly dangerous ideology. I think that it would be naive at best to think that most inequality we see today is ‘natural’ in any sense of that word.

Let me speak about Jefferson and Paine.

Jefferson may never have used the word democracy, but at least early in his life he definitely believed in a radical version of direct democracy in terms of direct civic participation and direct political action. As far as I understand it, his vision of democracy was one of an agrarian society which in today’s terms simply means a society of small business owners who simultaneously are producers. Yes, he believed in equality before the law, but his egalitarian vision went beyond that. He helped create a free public university which goes beyond mere opportunity because it is actively redistributing wealth to ensure public education. There is no way to have a govt without redistributing wealth. It’s just in authoritarian govts the wealth is distributed upwards to a minority elite and in democratic governments the wealth is distributed more evenly among the entire population.

However, Paine is more central to my argument, especially considering he was the first to refer to America as a united country and the first to formulate a version of Bill of Rights. Paine didn’t deny we are born with various inequalities, but he observed that most of the major inequalities in modern civilization are created by modern civilization. I’d suggest you read Paine in more detail to understand this position. He describes it in great detail in ‘Agrarian Justice’.

I’d go so far as to argue that the ideas and policies of the Populist and Progressive Eras were rooted in the thinking of the founding fathers.

For example, in ‘Agrarian Justice’, Paine formulated an early version of social security among other proposals of a what right-wingers would call a “welfare state”. Or take the Civil War as another example. Lincoln admired Paine and was inspired by Paine’s advocation of universal suffrage. Paine wanted literal freedom for all to be written into the constitution. Having failed that, it was left to Lincoln to finish the American Revolution that Paine originally inspired. In the terms of our disccusion, I think it’s hard to argue that the federal government enforcing equal rights (beginning with the Civil War and being furthered with the Civil Rights movement) is merely establishing equal opportunity. The government was, in fact, demanding basic results of equality in the real world. The government didn’t just offer slaves the opportunity to work themselves out of slavery.

I also mentioned earlier about some of the policies of the founding fathers. Besides creating public schools, I pointed out the issue of protectionism and subsidies.

The founding fathers weren’t worried about free market rhetoric because they understood on the global scale there was no free market. It wasn’t enough to say businesses had the opportunity to try to succeed. The founders protected American businesses against transnationals, enforcing an opposing unfair advantage to American businesses to counter the unfair advantage foreign businesses had from foreign governments.

Subsidies were another way they manipulated markets. In the case of subsidies for presses, they were manipulating markets for the public good. They didn’t merely offer the equal opportunity of a free press determined by a free market. They guaranteed (or at least strongly encouraged) equal results of having newspapers and other published works widely and cheaply available to average Americans.

You pointed out that the idea of an equal society has been portrayed as a dystopia in many movies. That isn’t much of an argument. Any idea can be portrayed dystopically when pushed to its most imbalanced extreme. I demonstrated this principle by dystopically portraying equal opportunity in terms of slavery. Imagine a society where some people are born free and some people are born into slavery. In this imagined society, some slaves do manage to work hard and buy their freedom. The fact that a few escape freedom doesn’t mean a whole lot for those who remain enslaved. Telling the slaves they have an equal opportunity wouldn’t comfort them.

Here is the crux of our discussion. I don’t know to what extent I do or do not understand your position, but your view as communicated here seems to be a fairly standard and mainstream understanding (actually, a bit right-leaning I must point out; conservatives tend to emphasize equal opportunity – or rather the rhetoric of equal opportunity – over equal results). As for my position, I don’t get the sense that you understand where I’m coming from (which is less standard and mainstream). We apparently have neither a shared based of knowledge nor a common understanding of terms. I realize I read widely at the fringes and so there is no reason I should assume most people would understand where I’m coming from. However, if you do want to understand where I’m coming from (specifically in terms of having a fruitful discussion about the above post), then I’d advise at least perusing some of the following (in particular, be sure to read ‘Agrarian Justice’). Otherwise, I doubt our discussion can go on much further.

– – –

The following include two of my YouTube playlists, some of my previous blog posts, and various stuff found around the web:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PL288BB2A3BB6F2FDD

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PLC463021B7E9402AD

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/us-republic-dem­ocracy/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/is-classical-li­beralism-liberal/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/thomas-paine-an­d-the-promise-of-america/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/founding-father­s-and-the-christian-nation/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.­com/2010/10/14/protectionist-a­merica/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrarian_Justice

http://cbelan.free.fr/documents/david_robinson_paper.pdf

http://www.conlaw.org/Intergenerational-II-2-5.htm

http://ijdb.auzigog.com/concept/locke%E2%80%99s-proviso

http://currencycommonsvt.org/2010/08/magna-carta-on-the-commons/

http://books.google.com/books?id=2kx7KiTEZCsC

http://www.ied.info/articles/my-eureka-moment/the-feudal-origins-of-land-titles

http://www.schumachersociety.org/publications/barnes_03.html

http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/01/31-6

http://www.enn.com/top_stories/article/9010

http://www.politicususa.com/en/founding-fathers-liberal

http://www.punkerslut.com/critiques/let_freedom_ring/the_socialism_of_thomas_paine_contrasted_with_the_traditional_values_of_american_conservatives.html

http://preesi.lefora.com/2010/04/14/our-socialist-founding-fathers/

http://www.peoplevstate.com/?p=780

http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffrep.html

http://www.educationnews.org/articles/13663/1/Jefferson-on-Public-Education-Defying-Conventional-Wisdom/Page1.html

http://www.servintfree.net/~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.html

http://leftlibertarianquaker.blogspot.com/2007/10/john-woolmans-plea-for-poor-chapter-13.html

http://leftlibertarianquaker.blogspot.com/2007/10/politics-as-extension-of-war-by-other.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_George

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgism

http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/davis_caspar_henry_george_and_geonomics.html

http://commonground-usa.net/kyri7802.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geolibertarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributism

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/toward-a-truly-free-market-w-author-john-medaille/

http://www.desarrollo.net/2010/09/distributist-john-medaille-on-the-role-of-cooperatives/

http://www.medaille.com/distributivism.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleoliberalism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-libertarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_libertarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Democrat

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheldon_Richman

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Marxism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_socialism

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc16

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc22

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc28

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Nozick

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noam_Chomsky

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker%27s_self_management

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Joseph_Proudhon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutualism_(economic_theory)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_communism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_Bookchin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_municipalism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communalism_(Political_Philosophy)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_societarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communitarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kropotkin

Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc

This post is about some related thoughts: bias in media, the relationship of society and nature, and the issue of democracy in terms of our present capitalism.

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Based on my experience and research, I think it’s fair to state that NPR isn’t liberally biased… or, at least, not in any clear sense… but  such assessments, of course, depend on how one defines/perceives ‘liberalism’. I’d argue NPR is as mainstream as can be found in that they mostly present a status quo view of the world. I suspect if you were to ask most people seen in the mainstream media (reporters, pundits, politicians, talking heads, etc) and they gave you an honest answer, most of them probably would agree with the types of views that are regularly presented on NPR.

(This ‘mainstream’, however, isn’t the same as the everyday experience and values of the average person. If you want to find something closer to a liberal bias, look at the stated opinions of the majority of Americans.)

Here is an example from NPR. The other day, there was a panel discussion. It was about business use of and government management of public land. As I recall, there were three guests, all mainstream types including someone defending the interests of big business and criticizing too much regulation. They had the typical disagreements one often hears in the mainstream, but they were all basically on the same page about the terms and focus of discussion. For certain, it wasn’t a liberal panel. It was just the old school journalism where two sides of an issue are ‘neutrally’ presented by the host, although done in the non-antagonistic ‘let’s all get along’ style typical of NPR.

Most interesting is what was lacking, specifically in terms of those who claim a liberal bias. Among the guests, there was no left-winger of any variety nor anyone who might agree with left-wing positions; no communists, socialists, Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-primitivists, left-libertarians, hippy environmentalists, deep ecologists, Goddess-loving pagans, social justice Christians, indigenous people, community activists, etc. Among the guests invited, there was no discussion of the poor and minorities most impacted by pollution and environmental destruction, no discussion about the alternatives to our present capitalist system, no discussion about how our society is turning into inverted totalitarianism. The officials/experts who were invited as guests framed the discussion narrowly. It was mostly framed as government regulation vs private profit. there was also some slight secondary framing of local people vs non-local corporations. Framings that were mostly or entirely ignored included: communities vs globalism, public good vs individual good, living ecosystems vs natural resources, humans as part of nature vs humans as separate from nature, etc.

The basic discussion was about how to maximize resource procurement while minimizing environmental destruction. And the basic assumption was of opposition and conflict, of win/lose scenarios where those who lose the most are ignored or rationalized away. There was neither an environmentalist conception of the human species living sustainably balanced within the earth’s biosphere nor a religious belief of humanty as caretaker of God’s Creation. The focus of the discussion was ‘management’ and so the implication was how do we best control and manipulate nature toward our desired ends. What was missing was the possibility of humans not creating problems in the first place that need to be managed.

– – –

I was thinking about how this opposition attitude is common in American society right now. There is the idea that for one person or group to win that others must lose. And there is is the idea that society can only be run well through hierarchies with the only disagreement being which system the hierarchy is organized according to. All of this depresses me.

My friend and I went to see the new X-Men: First Class movie. We were discussing the view portrayed of human evolution and change. It was mostly a view of Social Darwinism (by the way, I’ve always thought it odd how many right-wingers will dismiss Darwinian evolution while promoting Social Darwinism). I mentioned to my friend the thoughts I wrote about above. As a liberal, he of course agreed with me about NPR being a mainstream establishment voice. And we had a discussion on our walk home about the relationship of society and nature.

I told him about some thoughts I’ve had while working at the city parking ramp. In particular, I brought up my wonderings about what kind of vision of the world is implied by the building of large concrete structures in which to store large hunks of mobile metal.

I noticed a pigeon nesting in the ramp and I knew its days were numbered. Management seeks to block all possible nesting sites within the ramp and some of the maintenance workers find great pleasure in ‘hunting’ the pigeons who do manage to find a roost. This mentality is repugnant to me. I understand that animals and humans don’t always cohabitate well, but this situation isn’t ‘natural’ or inevitable. Parking ramps are designed to be ecosystem deserts, to be utterly opposed to all that is natural. But there is no reason to do this other than an ideological paradigm, a worldview that disallows people to envision any other possibility.

A parking ramp could be designed that gave pigeons nesting areas that would keep their poop away from cars and walkways. It could even be designed so that the pigeon poop could be collected and used as it traditionally was used (and still is used in many places) as fertilizer. This pigeon fertilizer could be used as free fertilizer for city gardens or it could be sold in order to make additional profit. That would be a win-win solution. To take this a step further, ramps (or any other structures for that matter) could be designed with habitation for all kinds of animals. Downtowns could be as beautiful to look at as parks filled with trees. And the habitat could help ease some of the environmental destruction that are causing many species to become endangered and go extinct.

What is the advantage of seeing nature as the enemy? There is no practical advantage. It actually goes against the practical benefit of the continued survival of the human species. Yes, we’re talented at ‘managing’ nature, but too often this just means destroying nature. My friend pointed out the conservative position that it shouldn’t be the role of government to spend taxpayers’ money on the liberal agenda of saving nature. My response was that neither should it be the role of government to ensure the private profit agenda of destroying of nature.

– – –

This problem extends beyond just nature. If we perceive nature as lesser than us, then our treatment of nature demonstrates how we wish to treat humans that are considered as lesser than other humans (poor, minorities, indigenous, etc) and how we wish to treat communities that are considered lesser (in terms of legal rights and political influence) than big business. To treat nature fairly is akin to the democratic ideal of treating all people fairly.

The reason I was thinking about democracy was because of an article on The Nation. Here is the article:

Reimagining Capitalism: Bold Ideas for a New Economy
William Greider

And following it is my response:

Our societal problems are caused and contributed to by a lack of democracy. A functioning democracy isn’t just about votes but about participation. In all aspects of society (politics, media, business, etc), power and wealth have become concentrated while wealth disparity and political disenfranchisement grows. Early great thinkers warned against such concentration, but in recent history many wrongly thought such warnings no longer mattered.

A political democracy is meaningless without social democracy (i.e., democratic values such as in the constitution). I don’t know if capitalism’s problems can be solved or if capitalism must be replaced. If there is any hope for capitalism in a democratic society, it will be by capitalism becoming a part of democracy rather than in opposition.

The founders and other early Americans were careful about regulating capitalism. They created protectionism to defend the local economy against transnationals, subsidized presses ensuring a functioning free press available to all citizens, and defined corporations narrowly. The last may be most important. Corporations:

– were only allowed to serve a single project or product, large conglomerate corporations having been illegal.

– could only exist as temporary entities so as to not outlive the people who are responsible for creating them.

– weren’t allowed to participate in politics.

Free market is just another way of saying democratic market. A system, political or economic, can only be free to the extent people involved in the system are free. As some early Americans (Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau, etc) realized, freedom can’t exist without equality (of power and wealth, and of opportunities to fairly earn power and wealth).

Democracy only functions well on the local level where people know the people they are impacting by their decisions and actions. A market can’t be considered free when it impacts people who can’t influence or protect themselves against those (e.g., transnationals) who seek to profit at their expense (including local communities and environments). The more localized democracy becomes the more it becomes direct democracy. Elites mistrust the people, but we the majority need to stop being subservient to the elites in politics and business. The problem is that the system we have now is designed by and for the upper class.

We need a government and an economy that is literally by and for the people:

1) a modernized version of Jefferson’s agrarian democracy (meaning an economy run mostly by small businesses and a society where most people are small business owners);

2) something like what Chomsky describes with anarcho-syndicalism (where businesses are owned, controlled and/or otherwise greatly influenced by the workers and by the members of the community in which the business is located); or

3) a system closer to Germany’s model with strong unions, a publicly trained workforce, high levels of civic participation, well-funded social safety net, community banks, and protected manufacturing.

– – –

Obviously, we live in a messed up society with messed up priorities. We are still operating society according to some very old ideas about human nature, but we are facing very new problems.

What’s Nature’s Economic Value?

(Full video: http://fora.tv/2010/08/03/Pavan_Sukhdev_What_Is_the_World_Worth)

I wish more people understood this very basic view of nature and the biosphere that supports all life and all civilization.

Species are going extinct and ecosystems are being destroyed at fast rates. I’ve looked at the data before and it’s impossible to really comprehend. There is nothing more important than the biosphere and yet there is nothing that humans treat so badly. People tend to only look at nature in terms of the worth that can be gained by destroying it, but few consider the worth of not destroying nature.

If we don’t collectively start acting according to the precautionary principle, we will inevitably destroy ourselves and possibly most of the biosphere as well. This isn’t an exaggeration. It’s hard to comprehend and most people would rather ignore the problem in hopes it will go away, but sadly reality doesn’t conform to our wishes.

There are still large numbers of people denying man-made global warming despite all the scientific research and despite the consensus of scientists and scientific organizations around the world. When ever I see someone denying the most basic facts of science, I just want to punch them in the face. I don’t get it. Will the average person only wake up when we’re on the brink of extinction? We really need to improve science education in this country and around the world. The only problem bigger than mass destruction of nature is the mass ignorance of the average person.

The following is a good analysis of the failure of ‘free market’ advocates to truly understand the problems of how external costs get placed upon third parties (in terms of our present corporatist/fascist/inverted-totalitarian system, this means pviatized profits and socialized costs).