"Human Nature", Conservation, extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Resistance is futile!

This post on the scienceblog The Last Word on Nothing is both a lament and a confession. The writer laments sport fishing’s role in disrupting ecosystems by heedlessly stocking native waters with imported species; and he confesses complicity, in that he has enjoyed catching trout that didn’t evolve where he caught them, and that have muscled out native species with a cascade of consequences.

Conservation is certainly a worthy cause. An ecosystem in balance is like an irreplaceable work of art; a species is a master brushstroke, and biodiversity the whole gallery. To appreciate these treasures, and to recognize that what we gain long-term by studying them could far outweigh what we gain short-term by destroying them, is uncommon sense.

But.

We’re finally just a part of nature, a rampaging, disruptive part that stirs the pot on a scale that probably no other organism bigger than a bacterium can rival. Before we go, we will cause tragic losses and also unimaginable gains. Life will evolve and adapt, perhaps even to microplastics.

Feel guilt, by all means, but feel it with a grain of salt. Some superintelligent rat of the future will thank you. By existing.

 

Standard
"Human Nature", Whither Homo sapiens?

Status and Stature

Our brains are made to reward us with pleasure when we accomplish something. The purpose of this mechanism (the dopamine system) evidently is to motivate us to anticipate the reward and so to repeat the survival-promoting effort, such as hunting. (We have a predator’s version of this instinct; we stalk an insight as intently as a cat fixates on a spider, and make a “killing” on the stock market much as Paleolithic tribesman drove mammoths off a cliff.)
***
In an unanticipated kink of evolution, though, our brains are also clever enough to figure out how to take a shortcut to the pleasure reward and bypass the effort.
***
This arguably backfires in the long term—the pleasure loses potency when it’s pursued as an end in itself, leaving us trapped in addiction or stranded in meaninglessness. But in the short term it works very well, and there is loads of evidence that our natural focus, very hard to overcome, is on the short term.
***
There are a million illustrations of this, but the one I was thinking about this morning was status.
***
There are people who merit admiration by being masters of what they do, and there are people who go after admiration as an end in itself. You could actually call the first kind of reward “stature” and the second “status.”
***
The first group of people may enjoy admiration, but they wouldn’t enjoy it without earning it, and it makes them uneasy because they often wonder if they have really done enough to deserve it, and if they will be able to do it again. Such people are intently focused on what they do, and the reward of status, if it comes, is a byproduct—it may even be perceived as a dangerous distraction (the Book Tour Trap), a temptation to rest on one’s laurels and lose one’s mojo.
***
The first group of people are often not very good self-promoters, because self-promotion doesn’t really interest them. It would be a waste of their time. An example is the great artist who isn’t “discovered” and whose genius isn’t recognized until dead. (Not to get too Romantic about it, there have been exceptions—great artists who are also great self-promoters. They must be people with a double or triple helping of energy, because for most of us either art or self-promotion would be a full-time job.)
***
The second group of people are interested in a shortcut to status, and their art (think: a banana duct-taped to a wall) becomes a means to that end. They are assiduous self-promoters, often gifted at taking the public’s pulse and riding, or even creating, market trends for the kind of thing they do.
***
The catch is that people in general have a tendency to be dazzled by status and to overlook or underrate stature, which is loath to blow its own horn. The audience can’t always tell the difference, and their senses are attracted to what makes more noise and draws a crowd.
Standard