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Mary Midgley - The Gifford Lectures
"An interviewer from the Guardian newspaper once wrote that Mary Midgley ‘may be the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool’. In a series of books, particularly Beast and Man (1978), Evolution as a Religion (1985),Science as Salvation (1992; her 1990 Edinburgh Gifford Lectures) and Science and Poetry(2001), Midgley offers a trenchant critique of science’s pretence to be much more than it actually is, of the ways in which science often becomes a religion.

Perhaps appropriately, Midgley the scourge of ‘science as religion’ was born to an army and Cambridge college chaplain, Canon Tom Scrutton, and educated in a boarding school in Charles Darwin’s old home, Downe House. Perhaps Midgley’s fascination with science came from her mother’s side; Lesley Hay’s father was an engineer who built the Mersey tunnel. It was in the Downe House library that Midgley first picked up Plato, and, in her own words, ‘thought it was tremendous stuff’ (although in later life perhaps Aristotelian questions have proved more fascinating). By this time, Midgley also realised that she was not a Christian, a position her clergyman father accepted rather matter-of-factly. Nevertheless, Midgley remains convinced that ‘the religious attitude’ is essential to human thriving, and in her work has repeatedly defended the place of religious belief (rather than particular religious beliefs) against its arrogant critics from the sciences.

A number of Midgley’s contemporaries at Somerville College, Oxford, went on to achieve philosophical distinction in later life, including Iris Murdoch, another Edinburgh Gifford Lecturer, with whom Midgley became a close friend. Midgley relished doing philosophy in wartime Oxford, partly because there wasn’t ‘an endless gaggle of young men’ to offer distraction. But she considered it ‘providential’ that she did not get the post she applied for at St. Hugh’s College, and left Oxford, since she thought that the then-prevailing climate of Oxford philosophy would have destroyed her as a philosopher.

She met Geoffrey Midgley while at Oxford. They married in 1950 at Newcastle, where Geoffrey had a job. She then raised a family and did not take up a post in the Department of Philosophy in Newcastle until 1962, where she remained until she retired as Senior Lecturer when the department closed.

Midgley’s animated critique of scientism—science become religion—has been taken by some, especially scientists, as an attack on science itself. This may partly be because Midgley seems much more adept at demolishing others’ positions than in stating her own clearly. In fact, Midgley’s critique of science should be seen against her own metaphor of the philosopher as plumber: the philosopher, like the plumber, engages in an activity that civilisation depends on, but it is an activity which people only notice and require when certain rather essential workings have gone wrong. At her best, Midgley is a ‘science critic’ (using the word ‘critic’ in the way it is used in ‘literary critic’), seeking dialogue with the important activity called science to enable it to do more good and less harm in the modern world. Midgley’s contribution to this project is perhaps largely that of negative criticism. However, her friendship with and support for James Lovelock, the scientist who developed the Gaia hypothesis (that the planet earth as a whole is a living system), tells us a lot about her positive beliefs. Presumably, in Lovelock, she finds a scientific approach that is more congenial and conducive to human flourishing."
marymidgley  scientism  2018  philosophy  behavior  humans  richarddawkins  eowilson  evolution  thinking  science  religion  theselfishgene  selfishness  society  feminism  cognition  humannature  animals  sociobiology  reductionism  christianity 
october 2018 by robertogreco
Mary Midgley, 99, Moral Philosopher for the General Reader, Is Dead - The New York Times
"The biologist Stephen Rose, writing in The Times Literary Supplement in 1992, called Dr. Midgley “a philosopher with what many have come to admire, and some to fear, as one of the sharpest critical pens in the West.”

Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian in 1981, called her “the foremost scourge of scientific pretension in this country.”

Dr. Midgley unhesitatingly challenged scientists like the entomologist Edward O. Wilson and the biologist, and noted atheist, Richard Dawkins. By her lights they practiced a rigid “academic imperialism” when they tried to extend scientific findings to the social sciences and the humanities.

In place of what she saw as their constricted, “reductionistic” worldview, she proposed a holistic approach in which “many maps” — that is, varied ways of looking at life — are used to get to the nub of what is real.

One challenge came in 1978 in her first book, “Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature,” based on a conference she had organized on that slippery, perennial subject as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.

She was later asked to revise her original manuscript to reflect her critical reaction to Professor Wilson’s best-selling 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” (“a volume the size of a paving stone,” she wrote later in a well-received 2005 autobiography, “The Owl of Minerva”). She described the field of sociobiology as a kind of reactionary “biological Thatcherism.”

Sociobiology — the application of gene-centered theories of natural selection to the social life of organisms — was not itself overly controversial, especially, as Professor Wilson originally used it, in the study of ants and insects. Dr. Midgley, given her own interest in emphasizing humans’ animal nature — that “we are not, and do not need to be, disembodied intellects” — praised parts of Professor Wilson’s book.

What provoked her and others was his hypothesis that the tenets of sociobiology could be applied to humans. That idea, according to scholars, threatened to radically revise generally accepted notions of human nature.

“The term ‘human nature’ is suspect because it does suggest cure-all explanations, sweeping theories that man is basically sexual, basically selfish or acquisitive, basically evil or basically good,” Dr. Midgley wrote in “Beast and Man.”

In “The Owl of Minerva,” she wrote that the need to address Professor Wilson’s concepts had distracted readers from her crucial topic: “the meaning of rationality itself — the fact that reason can’t mean just deductive logic but must cover what makes sense for beings who have a certain sort of emotional nature.”

She added that “Beast and Man” remained “the trunk out of which all my various later ideas have branched.”

Dr. Midgley took pains to distinguish between the important contributions of science and the philosophy of “scientism,” in which “prophets,” she wrote, decree that science is “not just omnicompetent but unchallenged, the sole form of rational thinking.”

“We do not need to esteem science less,” she continued. “We need to stop isolating it artificially from the rest of our mental life.”

Dr. Midgley did not align herself with any specific school of thought: She wrote that moral philosophy and plain “common sense” often covered the same ground. She targeted what she saw as some of the basic errors of modern scientific orthodoxy, including misplaced objectivity, the exclusion of purpose and motive, and the propensity to depersonalize nature.

The very titles of her books — among them “Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning” (1992) and “Evolution as a Religion” (1985) — and even irreverent chapter headings, like “Knowledge Considered as a Weed Killer,” conveyed her stance against what she called the “parsimonious” worldview of science.

In 1979, in the journal Philosophy, she issued a scathing critique of Professor Dawkins’s widely popular book “The Selfish Gene,” taking issue with what she called his “crude, cheap, blurred genetics.”

In that book, Professor Dawkins suggested that evolution is a product of an innate drive in genes to perpetuate themselves, “selfishly,” through the vehicle of a given species, and that the behavior of living things is in service to their genes.

Dr. Midgley explained her disagreement years later in The Guardian, writing: “Selfish is an odd word because its meaning is almost entirely negative. It does not mean ‘prudent, promoting one’s own interest.’ It means ‘not promoting other people’s’ or, as the dictionary puts it, ‘devoted to or concerned with one’s own advantage to the exclusion of regard for others.’”

She refuted the notion that selfishness underpinned all life.

“Just as there would be no word for white if everything was white, there could surely be no word for selfish if everyone was always selfish,” she wrote, adding, “Selfishness cannot, then, be a universal condition.”

In a long career as a published philosopher, Dr. Midgley addressed a great number of subjects. Evolution, the importance of animals, the role of science in society, cognitive science, feminism and human nature all came under her scrutiny.

She ranged more widely in “Science and Poetry” (2001), in which she considered the place of the imagination in human life. She found excesses of materialism and fatalism in human life, discussed the unusual compatibility of physics and religion, and approved of philosophical and metaphorical aspects of the Gaia hypothesis, which looks at the earth as a living system.

“With this book,” Brian Appleyard wrote in The Sunday Times of London, “Professor Midgley establishes herself as the most cool, coherent and sane critic of contemporary superstition that we have.”"
marymidgley  scientism  2018  philosophy  behavior  humans  richarddawkins  eowilson  evolution  thinking  science  religion  theselfishgene  selfishness  society  feminism  cognition  humannature  animals  sociobiology  reductionism  christianity 
october 2018 by robertogreco
Mary Midgley obituary | Education | The Guardian
"Philosopher who brought a sharp critical intelligence and a gift for vivid metaphor to her writing on human behaviour"

"In 1931, Mary was sent to Downe House. This progressive boarding school started in Charles Darwin’s old home, although by the time Mary was a pupil it had moved to Ash Green, near Newbury. She won a scholarship to Oxford to read Classical Greats and, arriving at Somerville College in 1938, became one of a strikingly able and forceful group of women philosophers. Elizabeth Anscombe had arrived at Oxford the year before, Iris Murdoch, who became a close friend, was an exact contemporary, and Philippa Foot arrived a year later. The work of this interesting quartet of thinkers has recently become the object of revived interest in the contribution of women to philosophy during the last century.

Mary graduated with a first in 1942 and for the remainder of the war worked mainly as a civil servant. From 1945-47 she was secretary to the classical scholar Gilbert Murray, after which she returned to philosophy, starting a thesis on the psychology of Plotinus. She tutored at Somerville and lectured at the University of Reading from 1948 until 1950.

At this point it looked as if an academic career of a familiar shape might be opening up. But instead, in 1950, she married a fellow philosopher, Geoffrey Midgley, whom she had first met in Oxford in 1945. He was lecturing at what later became the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, but was then King’s College of the University of Durham. He and Mary set up house together in Newcastle and had three sons over the next five years.

Mary turned to journalism, reviewing children’s books and novels for the New Statesman and the BBC Third Programme. She also read extensively in (among other things) psychology, anthropology, evolutionary theory and animal behaviour, becoming particularly interested in the views of such pioneers of ethology as Lorenz and Tinbergen. Her excellent autobiography, The Owl of Minerva (2005), gives a vivid account of this first half of her life.

It is unlikely that she would ever have become a professional philosopher in quite the mould of many of her contemporaries, since she had little taste for the logical and linguistic issues that were the focus of mainstream work in the 1950s and 1960s, and which remain the focus of much contemporary work. She said later that she was glad to have escaped when she did from the ambience of Oxford, finding it overly narrow and competitive.

The break in her career kept her very much aware of the need for philosophy in wider debate and, as she said herself, she was concerned “to bring academic philosophy back into its proper connection with life, rather than letting it dwindle into a form of highbrow chess for graduate students”.

In 1965 she returned to teaching philosophy, as a lecturer and later senior lecturer at Newcastle. It was not until this point, when she was over 50, that she began to publish the work for which she later became famous.

In 1980 she took early retirement to have more time to write and travel, and she was writing up to the end. Her final book What is Philosophy For? was published last month. Her work had already begun to be widely known at the time she retired, and she was invited to address numerous conferences and festivals. She became involved in campaigning for animal welfare (and for several years she chaired the RSPCA’s committee on animal experimentation), for environmental awareness and against the arms trade. She also appeared frequently on television and radio, presenting the case for animals and the environment and against scientific hubris. Her speaking and writing were always direct and vigorous and were informed by wide reading, a sharp critical intelligence and a gift for vivid metaphor. The drive of her thought is throughout sane and humane."
marymidgley  scientism  2018  philosophy  behavior  humans  richarddawkins  eowilson  evolution  thinking  science  religion 
october 2018 by robertogreco
What’s a Species, Anyways? | New Republic
"The search for the red wolf's origins have led scientists to a new theory about how evolution actually works."

"Evolution had always been represented as a “tree of life,” with animals diverging from each other until each species slotted into a terminal bud. In recent years, however, scientists have begun to adopt a more dynamic view of what constitutes a species. In 2011, Frank Rheindt and Scott Edwards, two researchers at Harvard, published a paper about hybridization in the scientific journal The Auk. They argued that “introgression”—the scientific term for when genes of one species enter the genome of another species through hybridization—had long been “underappreciated” and was, in fact, an “important and pervasive mechanism” in evolution. It allowed for the rapid introduction of “advantageous novelty” into a species’ gene pool. For example, the Neanderthal genes in the human genome affect the outer skin cells that produce hair, which researchers have suggested might have helped Homo sapiens adapt to colder climates when they migrated out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. Another research paper indicated that Tibetans gained the genes that help them breathe at high altitudes from the Denisovans, another ancient and extinct member of the Homo genus.

It is possible, certainly, for distinctive forms to be lost through hybridization. Non-native rainbow trout, for instance, have overwhelmed some of their idiosyncratic relatives in Western streams. But it is also possible for new forms to arise. No animal has demonstrated the rapid evolutionary advantages of hybridization better than the coyote. The coyote was native to the Great Plains but pushed eastward in the twentieth century into wolves’ former range along a front from Texas to southern Canada. The expansion, however, was not in lockstep. The coyotes that spread via Canada colonized new territory at a rate five times faster than their southern counterparts. A research team at the New York State Museum in Albany found that the northern coyotes encountered and hybridized with Algonquin wolves in Canada, producing larger offspring that could more easily hunt deer in Northeastern forests. These hybrid “coywolves” then spread into New York and Maine, states that had lacked wild canids since the nineteenth century. Evolution, a process that typically took thousands of years, had created a new form in a matter of decades. Hybridization held the key."

"To some biologists, the red wolf demonstrates how wrongheaded it is for the Fish and Wildlife Service to organize its conservation efforts around species in the first place, given how fuzzy the concept has proven. “I think it’s nonsensical for us to argue conservation-management practices on the basis of genomes that haven’t been impacted by genes from other species,” said Michael Arnold, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Georgia. “If we do that ... then there won’t be anything conserved.”

Instead, Arnold suggested a whole new paradigm for the natural world: not a “tree of life,” with its ever-multiplying and distinct branches, but a “web of life,” with species continually diverging and recombining over time —a truer picture of what actually happens in nature. He proposed that rather than spending conservation money to preserve what we have defined as a species, the U.S. government should buy up tracts of land and let natural evolutionary processes—including hybridization—run their course.

Scientists had hoped that DNA testing would yield clear definitions for animal species. Instead, it’s revealed just how impossible such precise determinations are. And yet few would suggest jettisoning the concept of a species altogether: It is, as E.O. Wilson wrote, too fundamental to human ideas of nature. The difference would be recognizing that a species is a human construction rather than a biological reality—a shift in perspective that would, if anything, give conservationists more flexibility to pursue their goals. “The Endangered Species Act is tied to typology, where it should be more oriented toward process,” Wayne said.

In this view, the red wolf need not be a paragon of genetic purity in order to deserve protection; it need only fill a niche in its ecosystem that no other animal does. Jenks echoed this point as well. “It should be about what an animal does in its habitat, and preserving that habitat, that ecology,” she said.

What that would mean for conservation efforts on the ground in North Carolina remains unclear. For the Fish and Wildlife Service, rescuing the red wolf from extinction is one of its greatest accomplishments. But as the agency continues to deliberate about the future of the recovery program, it has also signaled that it doesn’t have much heart left in the red wolf fight. This summer, a female red wolf wandered onto a landowner’s property in Hyde County. Typically, Fish and Wildlife employees trapped and removed unwanted red wolves from private property, but the wolves often journeyed back, and fed-up landowners have started to deny the agency access to their land. Rather than skirmish with another angry resident, the agency capitulated. It gave the man permission to shoot and kill the red wolf—a decision that drew the ire of environmental groups, who launched a lawsuit against the agency. On June 17, the man picked up a gun and, for the first time since the 1960s, intentionally took aim at and lawfully killed the red wolf. When he handed the corpse over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, they discovered that the wolf was nursing. Her pups would not survive without her care. "
biology  evolution  science  species  wolves  bencrair  joelsartore  animals  redwolves  coyotoes  dogs  hybrids  hybridism  wildlife  eowilson 
december 2015 by robertogreco
Sarah Churchwell: why the humanities matter | Opinion | Times Higher Education
"The renowned scientist E. O. Wilson recently described the humanities as “the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage”. The humanities are the study of what makes us human, of what it means to be human. As they penetrate every aspect of existence, they can, and should, intersect with the natural and social sciences, but literature, history, art, music, languages, theatre, film – and yes, television and computer games – are the stories and ideas through which we express our humanity.

We understand ourselves and our world through the telling of stories. Visual dramas teach us sympathy, empathy, pity, encouraging us to break out of our solipsistic shells. They explore ethical issues, ask challenging questions, inform the way we view each other. Today we live in a culture more defined by images and stories than ever before. Given this, it is vital that we approach the media, advertising and marketing discourses that influence and often manipulate us with critical thinking. We need improved communication skills; no one is born with them, and just chatting with your family and friends does not teach the precision of language needed to negotiate and reframe our complicated world. In a global age, we need to understand other societies. Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows that different phrases can prompt new perspectives and open our eyes to cultural values; studying foreign languages also improves mastery of our own. This rule holds by analogy more generally: when we learn about other people, we also learn about ourselves.

The politicians and corporations telling us that the humanities do not matter are, by no coincidence, the same people who think of us only as workers and consumers, not as citizens or individuals, and who strip away our human rights, one by one. It is the wealthy who insist that we should seek only to work: we don’t need the humanities, they tell us, all we need is to labour in a marketplace that will enrich them, not us.

If we agree that the humanities do not matter, or fail to challenge this assessment, we are colluding in the very practices that reduce our humanity, that impinge upon all the other ways in which we can enrich our lives, our abilities to express our creative individuality. Until we reconsider what it means to lead a truly satisfying life, what the ancient Greeks considered the “good life” – who are by no coincidence the people who invented the study of the humanities – we should not be surprised if we have the politicians and plutocrats we deserve. Why should any politician seek to challenge the source of his (rarely her) power?

The humanities conserve and safeguard those aspects of our being that intersect with the meanings of human existence beyond industry. A certain playwright was said to love humanity as a concept but to have less time for human beings. The same can be said of our so-called leaders, whose lofty rhetoric in support of humanity is belied by their contempt for the study of the humanities. That said, as the historian James Truslow Adams wrote some years ago, it is absurd to think that the powerful will abandon their power “to become spiritual leaders of a democracy that despises spiritual things”.

There is a story that may be apocryphal but is illustrative. Supposedly, Richard Dawkins was once visiting an art gallery in Florence, and as he left was heard to ask, “But what’s all this art for?” Regardless of whether Dawkins actually said it, this question articulates a widely held view among the instrumentalists and technocrats who decide our society’s priorities. Last year it was revealed that scientific studies had “proven” that reading made people more empathetic. At last, some book lovers cried, what we always knew has been proven: book lovers are better people! Anyone who has spent time in a literature department might challenge this jolly notion, but I agree with the critic Lee Siegel, who responded by defending his right to love books regardless of whether they “improved” him. Let me answer the question: what’s all this art for? It’s for us.

When we stopped being citizens and began to think of ourselves – or rather, each other – only as consumers, we relinquished thousands of years of human development. How can we sustain our civilisation if we don’t understand how it works? How can we interpret Magna Carta and defend our rights if no one reads Latin? How will we protect our own laws? How can we hope for transcendence in a secular age if we give up on beauty? Even in instrumentalist terms, the humanities represent 5,000 years of free research and development in what it means to be human. I think we should make use of that.

The humanities are where we locate our own lives, our own meanings; they embrace thinking, curiosity, creation, psychology, emotion. The humanities teach us not only what art is for, but what life might be for, what this strange existence might mean. What kind of humans would think that the humanities don’t matter? We need the advanced study of humanities so that we might, some day, become advanced humans."
humanities  2014  sarahchurchwell  eowilson  humanity  culture  literature  art  history  language  languages  stories  storytelling  theater  film  music  socialsciences  videogames  tv  television  humans  capitalism  policy  politics  markets  richarddawkins  technocracy  technocrats  instrumentalists  leesiegel  secularism  thinking  criticalthinking  thewhy  why  existence  existentialism  purpose 
december 2014 by robertogreco
Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife? | Science | Smithsonian
"The eminent evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has an audacious vision for saving Earth from a cataclysmic extinction event"
eowilson  nature  rewilding  2014  northamerica  wildlife  animals  extinction  massextinction  anthropocene 
august 2014 by robertogreco
A Child’s Wild Kingdom -
"Most parents won’t be surprised to learn that when a Purdue University child psychologist pulled a random sample of 100 children’s books, she found only 11 that did not have animals in them.

But what’s baffled me most nights at bedtime is how rarely the animals in these books even have anything to do with nature. Usually, they’re just arbitrary stand-ins for people, like the ungainly pig that yearns to be a figure skater, or the family of raccoons that bakes hamantaschen for the family of beavers at Purim. And once I tuned in to that — into the startling strangeness of how insistently our culture connects kids and wild creatures — all the animal paraphernalia in our house started to feel slightly insane. As Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, pointed out to me, “Right when someone is learning to be human, we surround them with nonhumans.”"

"SCIENCE has some explanations to offer. Almost from birth, children seem drawn to other creatures all on their own. In studies, babies as young as 6 months try to get closer to, and provoke more physical contact with, actual dogs and cats than they do with battery-operated imitations.

Infants will smile more at a living rabbit than at a toy rabbit. Even 2-day-old babies have been shown to pay closer attention to “a dozen spotlights representing the joints and contours of a walking hen” than to a similar, randomly generated pattern of lights.

It all provides evidence for what the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson calls “biophilia” — his theory that human beings are inherently attuned to other life-forms. It’s as though we have a deep well of attention set aside for animals, a powerful but uncategorized interest waiting to be channeled into more cogent feelings, like fascination or fear."

"Kids under the age of 6 especially “were found to be egocentric, domineering, and self-serving,” Dr. Kellert later wrote, summarizing the study. “Young children reveal little recognition or appreciation of the autonomous feelings and independence of animals” and “also express the greatest fear of the natural world.” It was the younger kids, not the 8th or 11th graders, who were more likely to believe that farmers should “kill all the foxes” if a particular fox ate their chickens; that it’s O.K. to slaughter animals for fur coats; that most wild animals are “dangerous to people”; and that all poisonous animals, like rattlesnakes, “should be gotten rid of.” It was the younger kids who were more likely to agree with the statement “It’s silly when people love animals as much as they love people,” whereas virtually none of the teenagers believed it was silly. Most second graders agreed with the statement “If they found oil where wild animals lived, we would have to get the oil, even if it harmed the animals.” Eleventh graders overwhelmingly did not."

"Ultimately, all these animals that we fill our children’s lives with — the frustrated goats who learn to compromise, the worried skunk who makes it through her first day of school, the teddy bear that needs to be hugged and tucked in — are also just proxies. They are useful, adorable props, props that we sense command our kids’ attention in some deep, biophilic way. And so we use them to teach our children basic lessons of kindness or self-possession or compassion — to show our kids what sort of animals we’d like them to grow up to be."
animals  children  human-animalrelations  storytelling  childrensbooks  childrensliterature  biophilia  eowilson  society  parenting  psychology  animalness  nature  myths  davidfoulkes  judithheerwagen  gordonorians  kieransuckling  southersalazar  2013  anthropomorphism  human-animalrelationships 
may 2013 by robertogreco
Matthew Battles – What is a specimen
"The little ivory characters are examples of tupilaq, a genre of carved critter widespread among the Inuit and other peoples of the far north. The tupilaq that live outside of museum time, outside of gallery time, are evil spirits called into being by a shaman for the purpose of making mischief. They carry curses to rivals and enemies. Made from bone and fur and other materials, the tupilaq are powerful magic — and dangerous for those who wield them, for if discovered, their powers turn back on their users unless an immediate public confession is made. Secrecy and darkness are the native habitat of the tupilaq; they lose their power when exposed to the sociable light."

"Objects arrive webbed in connections, and hoard their most intimate gestures and relations in unreachable treasure-houses. A collected object is a kind of vessel, freighted with an irredeemable record of acts and things, inaccessible worlds of sense and event, a tissue of phenomenal dark matter caught up in time’s obliterative machinery."

"Forged in an organismic manufactory, tooled by genes (it’s symbols all the way down), a tooth takes its place for a time in a network of perception and action: catching the piercing resonance of whale song bounding in the deep canyons — testing and metering the shifting temperatures of Arctic air — tearing and gripping the trauma-tautened flesh of smolt salmon."

"I want a museum with the modesty to realise that the objects of its interest do not take their sole, true, or final form beneath its gaze. As seen by science, objects withdraw their auras — burning coronas that connect sense and experience to the deep past — and when the galleries and museums are in ruins, they will expose new banners to time’s unfolding."

"Upon leaving the dermestid room, you had to stand in the airlock and brush down your clothes. There was an aroma of putrefaction in the room, but it was faint — you got used to it. The sound, however, was oppressive. The place hummed with a static song of tens of thousands of beetle grubs, hairy and grey, all chewing at sinew and dried muscle."

"Although to call the specimens dead does not sound quite right. For the specimens had transcended or exceeded death, had passed beyond its dominion by means of a process that arrested, ostensibly in perpetuity, their participation in the carbon cycle, the wheel of disarticulation and recombination, that is life on earth."

"An act of predation subsumes and reincorporates phenomenal animal affordances; the scientific sacraments of collecting and accessioning, by contrast, call forth abstract and motive truths, just as the expertise of the shaman reveals and directs the powers of the tupilaq spirits."

"Only later, upon its post-mortem discovery, was this dead creature turned into data. Now roughly preserved and enshrined in the Smithsonian, the dead insect serves as holotype for the computer bug. Like the tupilaq, computer bugs are ungovernable spirits evoked by a kind of transubstantiation. As the uncanny architecture of the computer unfolded itself in Harvard’s labs, the bug found its way not only into the machine’s works but into a new role as an object in our midst — a role that took its place among the object’s other histories and meanings, its penumbra of qualities.

This patterned assemblage of purposes, roles, and given characteristics, this accidental and ephemeral fate, I want to call by the name habit. An effigy, an insect, an animal’s measured, pinned-out pelt — we have our ways of domesticating these objects, of bringing them to ground, fixing them in amber or in print. The precise practices vary with what habits we bring to bear (from science to shamanism) and the collections they inhabit. And here is a clue — for dwelling in the word ‘inhabit’ is ‘habit’ itself. What if the habits in question are not ours, but those of the objects themselves?

A habit is not only a way of acting, but also a costume of a kind. Some objects — books, dice, celery stalks, lens caps — have deeply ingrained habits, while others — seashells and stars, perhaps, but also bottlecaps, icicles, and plastic six-pack yokes twirling in the mid-ocean gyre — wear their habits more lightly. And some objects take on the habit of naphtha and indelible ink, of cotton wool and alum, of cabinet drawer and taxonomic order.

The word ‘habit’ catches for me a sense of the shoddy assortment of qualities that knits an object into the fabric of things, weaving into one whole its social roles, the cultural codes it keys, and its whence-and-whither entanglements with deep time."

"After a long moment, the bat fled in a blur, disappearing into Chicago’s booming late-autumn breeze. It disappeared into the invisible cabinet of its unmeasured curiosity, its habit secreted in the wind."

[Previously: ]
matthewbattles  objects  collections  museums  nature  aura  2013  tupilaq  meaning  meaningmaking  taxonomy  whales  animlas  teeth  inuit  art  culture  srg  edg  glvo  specimens  life  death  memory  memories  storytelling  holotypes  preparators  procedures  metadata  autotelos  naturalhsitory  georgescuvier  secrecy  darkness  magic  eowilson  history  bugs  computerbugs  habits  time  qualities  shamanism  science  understanding  misunderstanding 
may 2013 by robertogreco
Island biogeography - Wikipedia
"Island biogeography is a field within biogeography that examines the factors that affect the species richness of isolated natural communities. The theory was developed to explain species richness of actual islands. It has since been extended to mountains surrounded by deserts, lakes surrounded by dry land, fragmented forest[1] and even natural habitats surrounded by human-altered landscapes. Now it is used in reference to any ecosystem surrounded by unlike ecosystems. The field was started in the 1960s by the ecologists Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson,[2] who coined the term island biogeography, as this theory attempted to predict the number of species that would exist on a newly created island."

[Via via @vruba]
isolation  biology  robertmacarthur  eowilson  islandbiogeography  islands  biogeography 
july 2012 by robertogreco
Where does good come from? - The Boston Globe
"Wilson is not arguing that members of certain species don’t sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their relatives. They do. But it’s his position that kinship and relatedness aren’t essential in causing the development of advanced social behaviors like altruism — that the reason such behaviors catch on is that they’re evolutionarily advantageous on a group level. That socially advanced organisms end up favoring their kin, Wilson argues, is a byproduct of their group membership, not the cause.<br />
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“It’s a question of which is the cart and which is the horse,” said Peter Nonacs, a UCLA biologist who shares Wilson’s sense that relatedness and advanced social behavior are not as intimately linked as most scientists think."
science  philosophy  culture  altruism  development  evolutionarybiology  eowilson  good  goodness  nature  kin  kinship  sociobiology  kinselection  richarddawkins  martinnowak  corinatarnita  2011 
april 2011 by robertogreco
The Phylomon Project
"Well 2010 is here, a.k.a. the International Year of Biodiversity, and to us at the SCQ, it means that we're finally ready to go ahead with our long awaited phylomon project. “What is this?” you ask? Well, it's an online initiative aimed at creating a Pokemon card type resource but with real creatures on display in full “character design” wonder. Not only that - but we plan to have the scientific community weigh in to determine the content on such cards (note that the cards above are only a mock-up of what that content might be), as well as folks who love gaming to try and design interesting ways to use the cards. Then to top it all off, members of the teacher community will participate to see whether these cards have educational merit. Best of all, the hope is that this will all occur in a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way."
pokemon  taxonomy  pedagogy  education  children  teaching  science  games  animals  biology  memory  biodiversity  conservation  2010  gaming  cardgames  tcsnmy  opensource  creativecommons  kids  art  life  eowilson  publicservice  glvo  edg  srg  drawing  illustration  pokémon 
january 2010 by robertogreco - Biologist EO Wilson Says Soccer Moms Are Natural History’s Enemy
"says worst thing parent can do for child is take him to botanical garden where all trees are marked & labeled. Instead, “Go to seashore and give them a pale and bucket. Let them experience nature…and then come back and ask questions,”
eowilson  parenting  children  nature  outdoors  schedules  activities  time  play  experience  learning  creativity  imagination  naturedeficitsyndrome 
march 2008 by robertogreco
Conceptual Trends and Current Topics - A Web Page For Every Species
"Here's a story about something big. Big as the planet. Not well known, but important. I go into great detail because I was present for part of its rise. It's also the story of how big things get done. With set-backs, failures, many people, unexpected tur
kevinkelly  crowdsourcing  biology  eowilson  taxonomy  philanthropy  nature  science  community 
march 2008 by robertogreco

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