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Collective learning and manipulation

October 25, 2009

Collective learning and manipulation
By Denise Scammon

Fred Spier writes in “How Big History Works: Energy Flows and the Rise and Demise of Complexity,” about matter, energy and entropy regimes, “structured processes that make up big history.” He reiterates information from earlier class assignments about the big bang, differentiation and complexity. In his essay, Spier goes into detail about how the highest forms of complexity can be found on surfaces, margins, edges of non-living entities, but in living entities the highest forms of complexity can be found in the centers. The reason for this difference is that the highest complexities of a biological nature are DNA and brains, both of which nature has placed in protective areas of the living entities. Spier compares this protection to protective gear: “Life has created a space suit for its own highest complexity” and “terrestrial life has turned the biosphere into a spacesuit” (2005, p. 1).
In addition to the complexities of non-living and living entities, Spier writes about the complexities of culture. He notes that human brains are “cultural software” which not only allow humans to communicate, but also to “adapt to the environment and adapt the environment” for survival purposes. In regards to the importance of human communication, Spier agrees with David Christian’s view that “collective learning operates for humans in ways similar to how natural selection works for the rest of nature” (p. 11). In order to survive, humans, like other living things, seek out matter and energy. I like the phrase “to survive and thrive” in which “thrive” can be replaced with reproduce. It’s a mnemonic to use a rhyme scheme. For survival purposes, early humans used matter and energy found in the environment. Modern humans use matter and energy found in the environment, too, but also have created waste matter that is not biodegradable. Spier notes that the low levels of radiation energy created by humans can be dispersed in the “cosmic trash can,” but the “material entropy” cannot be disposed of in the same manner (p. 12).

David Christian writes about “Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture,” in his book Maps of Time. He defines intensification as “new technologies and lifeways that enabled humans to extract more resources from a given area of land” (p. 207).  This ties in with Spier’s essay about the complexities of living things and culture. Christian details the appearance of agriculture and the factors that brought hunter-gatherers to become agrarian such as climate changes and sedentism. In the chapter, “From Power over Nature to Power over People,” Christian explains social complexity.

There seems to be a cycle of tool-making and tool-use with a “simultaneous development of language and thought” among early humans, according to Spier. As human brains developed the capacity for language and thought, human brains become bigger and more complex. Spier links bigger, more complex brains with the appearance of two new human species 500,000 years after tools were first used by humans.  One of those new species, Homo erectus, discovered fire, which then started another wave of brain growth and development and another new species, Homo sapiens, emerged 200,000 years ago. The importance here is that humans began to use energy and matter sources and flows in ways that created or destroyed complexity in the environment (p. 12).

In the film, “The Future of Food,” there are many examples of humans destroying complexity in nature with new agricultural technologies – genetically engineered foods. One example is the dwindling varieties of farmed foods that is a direct result of GE technology. Once there were 5,000 varieties of potatoes, but today there are only four varieties. The film states that 90% of plants and vegetables that existed in the 19th Century are extinct today. The reasoning behind GMO and GE technologies is that these seeds will have higher yields, are cheaper to produce and more readily available than native seeds. The biotechnology companies, particularly Monsanto, have been destructive forces in nature because the GE seeds and pesticides have created a loss of complexity, increased costs, polluted environments and destroyed an American way of life – farming. One particularly sad case is that of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto because some of their patented seed crops pollinated his field of crops, unbeknownst to Schmeiser. Crazy logic.  Biotechnology companies have, according to the film, interfered with basic human rights by patenting life. The film details the strong arm tactics used by these companies to take control of the food we eat by getting around the FDA and EPA. These companies also threaten to withdraw research funding at universities that discover and publish research refuting the companies’ claims. Monsanto and other biotech companies that threaten to withdraw research funding are contributing to a loss of intellectual diversity, in addition to a loss of genetic diversity. It appears that the one item that would make a dent in the biotech companies’ monopoly is money. Greenpeace International notes that the European public do not want GMO foods. Japan won’t take the word of the biotech companies that GMO food is safe and instead have said that they will watch U.S. children for 10 years to see if GMO food causes health problems in our children. Mexico has made it very clear that maize – corn – is its national product and part of its heritage and that it does not want to lose its native strains to GMO products. Unfortunately, GMO strains have appeared in Mexico. This issue relates to big history as it is an example of artificial selection and how it destroys diversity and complexity.

Another important trend noted in Spier’s essay is that after humans began to use tools and fire to alter the environment for survival, the next step came about when humans “gained control over the reproduction of plants and animals to harness and manipulate energy and matter flows.” This was the beginning of the agrarian regime and a sedentary lifestyle. Since people were no longer moving around in order to farm the land, they started building more permanent houses, better storage and cooking (ceramics) creations for food. Spier wrote that “the world of the teacup had begun” (p. 14).  What does that mean? I interpret it to signify cultural complexity at the human level. No other living organism uses a teacup, only humans. Again, what does this mean? A teacup is used to hold a beverage ingested by humans. Is the significance in the shape? I think the significance of “teacup” by Spier is to illustrate that the agrarian lifestyle created a need for more permanent items that could be re-used, whereas nomads travel light and use resources available in the environment. This difference is an example of the material goods produced by humans which then create more entropy.

Christian states, More productive technologies and larger, denser communities created the preconditions for the emergence of states” (2004, p. 259). Spier states that the agrarian lifestyle led to innovations in tools, homes and food storage. After 5,000 years of living an agrarian lifestyle, social changes also occurred because as people settled on farms near each other, boundaries had to be formed. Connecting paths became streets. Clusters of farms became towns, villages, cities, states. The early agrarian societies were egalitarian, but when states formed they became hierarchical. The elite not only controlled the harvesting of energy and matter flows, but at this point in time, we see humans exploiting other humans as sources of matter and energy. Exploitation of humans by humans took place through disinformation, by stealing and by force (Spier, 2005, p. 15). This reminded me of discussions in last semester’s Science, Technology & Society class with Professor Coste in which we learned that prior to a written language, mnemonics were used to memorize and share information. Spier illustrates how the written language was used by the elite to withhold information from the working class. In the film, “The Future of Food,” these different layers of society were noted, too. The film noted that a multilayered culture has a top layer consisting of the elite who manipulate the bottom layer of workers. The small group of elite extract more from the energy and matter flows of the large group of workers because the elite have the power and the money to do so. Spier briefly notes that today’s e-communication has made the sharing of information and disinformation easier and widespread. Widespread communication shrinks our world and makes the world a global village. Spier writes that globalization leads to global cultural complexity. Global cultural complexity includes “the emergence of a worldwide division of labor” created by the middle classes who are not tied to the land (p. 16).

The third great ecological transformation is industrialization featuring the use of fossil fuels as energy sources, according to Spier. Nationwide complexity increased, but local complexity declined. Industrialized nations were generally wealthier than non-industrialized nations, and gained control over matter and energy flows, which led to global power divisions. Spier states that industrialized nations fought over these resources forming the basis for several world wars. The importance of these fossil fuels is that they allowed humans even more control over their environments with artificial microclimates. Humans could create cold or hot appliances as needed, for example, to heat homes or chill food (Spier, 2005, p. 17-18). In Macedonia, by Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson, the story features a college student who visits Macedonia to find out how war can be avoided when different regions want control over something – land, a resource. Does this book relate to the other reading/film assignments? I think so, but I can’t say that if any one organization had stepped forward that World War I or II would have been prevented. I have read two-thirds of the book.

Jared Diamond’s essay, “The Worst Mistake in Human History,” reminded me of the Creative Critical Inquiry course I took a few semesters ago. Diamond notes beliefs humans have had that show errors in critical thinking. We once thought that Earth was at the center of the Universe, that humans were specially created by God and that human history notes our progress, such as the development of agriculture. Diamond’s position is that agriculture is actually the cause of “gross social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism” (p. 64). Like Diamond, Christian states, “Civilization is often taken as a synonym for progress” (Christian, 2004, p. 248). Life may appear better because we have found easier ways of doing things, such as farming rather than hunting-gathering. Diamond points out that it is a mistake to think that agricultural society is better than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle with examples that compare the few remaining hunter-gatherers in existence today with farmers. The Kalahari bushmen have plenty of leisure time. They work less than farmers. They also appear to have a more nutritious, varied diet and thus are healthier than farmers. I was curious as to what Diamond meant at the beginning of his essay when he wrote about sexual inequality. Some societies use women as “beasts of burden” (Diamond, p. 66).

From the film, “The Future of Food,” I learned of the Web site and in visiting that site came upon other sites which I browsed and bookmarked. I want to go back and read about the honeybees. One of my friends started bee keeping last summer. It was interesting to see what the different universities felt was important enough to highlight on their respective homepage. One university had an article about crop rotation, while another university had an article about two new wheat varieties. On the Rodale Institute site, I participated in this poll:

What is the most important issue for the new administration that impacts agriculture?
Your vote was recorded.
Making U.S. agriculture competitive globally: 6% (177 votes)
Supporting sustainable farm practices that do not harm the environment: 50% (1499 votes)
Encouraging farming practices that increase access to organic, nutritious food for all people:             36% (1078 votes)
Converting more farmers to organic: 9% (260 votes)
Total votes: 3014

Because of what I learned in this class, I chose “Supporting sustainable farm practices that do no harm the environment.” What would you choose in the poll?

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