Friday, August 24, 2012

Unselfish genes, wood-powered trains and a real-world District 12 (or, what I spent my summer reading)

Summer is almost done, and all that time I thought I'd be spending working on my book about climate and migration has leaked away somehow. Part of it may have been time spent moving myself, my family, and our way-too-many belongings to Waterloo. I am now spending most of my days at my new office at Wilfrid Laurier University busily scratching out my fall course outline and trying to learn a whole new set of admin procedures, online systems, and the usual administratia. Somewhere during the summer I managed to read a couple books purely for pleasure, and thought I would list here a few thoughts about each, in the hopes others might get the same pleasure out of them that I did.

I'm just finishing up E.O. Wilson's latest excellent book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Like many of Wilson's recent books, this one takes aim at some of the big questions that challenge scientists and social scientists alike. In this book, he looks at the success humans have had, as compared with similar organisms, in terms of our ability to occupy so many different physical environments, to achieve such large population numbers, and to modify our environment so termendously, and asks, how did this come about? In answering this question, Wilson conncts genetics to Darwinian natural selection, but not by using the popular Richard Dawkins-theory of "the selfish gene" whereby individuals are motivated to do whatever it takes to pass along their genes to the next generation; rather, Wilson argues that eusociality (a process whereby multiple generations of related organsims cooperate with one another to rear new offspring and assist one another, even where it's not in the individual''s interest to do so) is driven by group selection. That is, it's by doing what's best for the extended family unit that motivates eusoical organisms. Therefore, a worker bee does what's best for the colony not because its own genes will be passed along to the next generation, for it will not reproduce. Rather, it shares its genes with the queen of the colony, and so by ensuring that the queen reproduces, the worker ensures their shared genes will go on. It does not really matter which one of them procreates, so the workers are not driven by any selfish urge to reproduce. They're driven to ensure the living conditions are the best they can be for all occupants of the hive, and to ensure the queen's eggs grow up to be healthy adults. By joining forces to work as as cooperative groups, bees, wasps, ants, termites and other eusocial insects become highly successful and ubiquitous.

Wilson's version of eusociality is not held by all natural scientists, but it raises some interesting ideas when applied to human eusociality. For example, if Wilson's right, then humans who act selfishly to enhance their personal status and wealth are engaging in unnatural (and, in the long-run genetic sense, unsuccessful)behaviour. Families and communities are a more successful way to go in the long run. However, it is natural for human groups that are not related or not connected by a sense of comunity to compete with one another for territory and resources, with violence if necessary. The evolutionary key to human success is biologically and genetically grounded in selfless cooperation with those we know and love, but less so to cooperate with other human groups we don't know. Hmmm... While it may not be universally subscribed to, Wilson's theories do explain much of what we observe peopole doing. But if he is right, what might be the implications of text messaging, Facebook and other easily accessible and widely available social networking tools that have emerged. If they give us more opportunities to form communities of like-minded individuals, will it mean fewer conflicts and greater eusociality among people? i'll have to mull that one over some more...

The second book I've been reading is Republic of Nature by environmental historian Mark Fiege. it is an impressive work in terms of length and depth. In it, Fiege revisits some of the best-known episodes in American history, like the Civil War and the Brown v Board of Education decision and explains the environmental conditions that helped shape those events. I agree with the general premise that the environment is always there, and always sets boundaries on the possible and impossible in human affairs. At risk of over-simplifying, late 20th century social scientists had a tendency to discount too heavily the role of nature in human affairs, just as early 20th century environmental deterministists had a tendency to overstate it. Fiege's book, which builds on the work of well-established environmental historians like William Cronon and Donald Worster, generally hits a nice balance. It contains some fascinating anecdotes (for example, I didn't know that the first east-bound steam trains running from California burned wood, not coal (imagine the forests consumed to fuel trains!)) and Fiege's account of the exhausting route third-grader Linda Brown  had to take to get to her segregated school in Topeka would make any geographer proud. At times Fiege's writing gets overly dense and repetitive, and its important to remember that be focussing on environment he does undertreat human cuasal factors in historical outcomes (e.g. you cannot understate the role of Lincoln in the outcome of the US Civil War). If you have the time and the energy for it, this is a book that will be taught in senior undergrad courses 50 years from now.

The 3rd and final book I'll write about here is The Hunger Games. When I first heard that it described a failed future society that stages a TV show where children kill one another for viewers' enjoyment, it appalled me. But I did want to read what many of my students will have read and find out what it was all about, and I must confess, I had trouble putting it down. I later went to see the movie, but found the movie representation of the characters were not much like the mental images of the characters I developed while reading the book (with the exception of the heroine, who's based so closely on Diana the hunter-goddess). Perhaps I didn't expect the people of the Capital to be so outlandishly attired and made up. However, one thing I immediately recognized in both book and movie is that District 12 in the Hunger Games is very much like modern day northern Appalaichia (i.e. West Virginia, western Pennsylvania). Appalaichia coal-country is a real-life environmental nightmare and, in many rural areas, a pretty bleak place to live. Coal mining companies run this region like their own little fiefdoms, and the things they do to ensure they get the most coal out of the ground for the smallest dollar are outright despicable. But don't take my word for it, see for yourself at this NASA website. If you want to explore deeper what life is like in the real-world version of District 12, I'd highly recommend Carter Sickel's novel The Evening Hour, its depiction of oxycontin addiction, abject poverty and environmental catastrophe that is so close to real-life, it's barely a work of fiction.

So there's my end-of-summer review of recent books. I hope you had a good summer, and by the time my next blog posting appears, students and teachers alike will be back at the salt face.

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